Directed by: Ross Partridge
Written by: Ross Partridge based on the novel by Bonnie Nadzam.
Starring: Ross Partridge (David Lamb), Oona Laurence (Tommie), Jess Weixler (Linny), Tom Bower (Foster), Scoot McNairy (Jesse), Lindsay Pulsipher (Linda), Jennifer Lafleur (Melissa), Joel Murray (Wilson), Ron Burkhardt (Walter Lamb).
Lamb is the type of film that has been designed to make the viewer uncomfortable pretty much for beginning to end. It is about a relationship between a middle aged man, David Lamb (played by Ross Partridge, who also directed and wrote the screenplay) and an 11 year old girl, Tommie (Oona Laurence). These two should not know each other – should nothing to do with each other – but they find each other, and then take things farther than they should. In the early scenes, where Lamb talks about his views on life, and Tommie laps it up, we think we’re seeing a story about a pedophile, slowing grooming his latest victim. But Lamb never crosses that line with Tommie – he doesn’t even really come close to that line. He does a lot of stupid, illegal things with Tommie, but sex doesn’t seem to be a part of the equation for him with her. Why, then, does he become so obsessed with Tommie – and why does Tommie love him back.
The film is based on a novel by Bonnie Nadzam – which, unsurprisingly, is better than the movie, basically because Nadzam is willing to go to places that Partridge is not. The events of the book and the movie are basically the same – it’s a very faithful adaptation – but I Partridge softens it for the screen. Lamb comes a lot closer to crossing some lines in the book than he does in the movie – or it at least feels like he does – and it’s all in what Nadzam and Partridge separately decide to emphasize. What the book and the movie do share however is an unwillingness to get inside either Lamb or Tommie’s head – meaning their separate motives for what they do remain a mystery in both.
The story is about Lamb, a middle aged man dealing with the death of his father, a recent divorce and his relationship with a much young woman at his office – Linnie (Jess Wexler). He meets Tommie when he is dared by her friends to come over and ask him for a cigarette. He decides to teach them a lesson – and after informing Tommie what he’s going to do, he grabs her, puts her in his car and takes off. All he does – this time – is drive her home, and lecture her. She’s back the next day however, and the two strike up an unlikely friendship – he drives her to and from school, and offers his take on life – which no one other than an 11 year old would think of as anything other than silly and juvenile. Finally, the decide to run off together – just for a week, they say, to his place off in the mountains. He tells Tommie not to tell anyone, because they might think what he’s doing is kidnapping, which, after all, it is.
The story is about these two lost souls finding each other – however briefly. Lamb probably sees a little of himself in Tommie – he was raised by a distant father, and Tommi’s mother and stepfather seem more interested in the TV then they are in her. She’s happy that an adult is paying attention to her – and treats her like an equal. After the incident in the parking lot, she has pretty much lost her friends – and with a not great home life, what else does she have?
If there’s a reason to see Lamb – and it’s debatable if there is – it is the two central performances, which are fascinating to watch. Partridge is a character actor , who looks a little like Dermot Mulroney, and he makes Lamb a mixture of affable and pathetic – you can see why people like him at first, and yet pull away eventually. His charm is all on the surface, with not a lot to back it up. The talented Oona Laurence – very good in last year’s Southpaw, as Jake Gyllenhaal’s daughter – is also playing a character pull of contradictions – at times, she seems wise beyond her years – one of those movie children who is basically an adult, and yet she is naïve enough to go along with Lamb, and actually believe much of what he says. I don’t think the inherent contradictions in the characters is a flaw of the movie – but a feature of it. These are characters who you cannot quite pin down, and they stay in your mind a while after the movie ends.
The movie around those performances isn’t particularly good however – and shares some of the same problems I had with the book – namely, what they hell are the makers of the film really trying to say with this movie. They deliberately try to setup a Lolita-like story, but then do not go in that direction. Are they trying to implicate us in the audience of something – trying to make us feel ashamed that our perverted minds went there? Perhaps – but they set us to believe that, so it’s unfair to then call us stupid for believing them. I think ultimately the book works better than the movie, because Nadzam has less sentimentality in her novel than Partridge does in his film. She also seems more willing to embrace the ambiguity of their relationship then he does (although, to be fair, that could be because its easier to write than it is too shoot some of the ambiguous moments in novel – dealing with how Lamb touches Tommie). Ultimately though, I think Partridge’s film doesn’t quite work because he really only gives you one possible interpretation of the material – and Nadzam does the opposite, making her characters ultimately unknowable. Partridge never figures out how to do that, and the film doesn’t quite get to the level that it should. It’s good enough that I want to see what Partridge does next – but it’s also good enough to make you wish it was better.