SXSW Film Review – Lamb
The success of Ross Partridge’s Lamb (2015) really depends on whether or not you can buy into its premise. If you can believe that a middle aged man and a pre-pubescent girl – who have never met before – can reasonably coexist, then there may be something here for you. But if you can’t look at it without cringing at the possibility of pedophilia, then there might be a problem. Adapting the novel by Bonnie Nadzam, Partridge attempts to do something near impossible when it comes to the interaction between adults and children. Here is a story of two people trying to stabilize their lives, but by doing so together they encounter something very troubling.
In a vacuum, both characters win our empathy. Partridge’s screenplay allows enough background for characters to have weight behind them. We first meet David Lamb (played by Partridge). David is a 47-year-old man struggling through a difficult part of his life. He lost his father just as he is going through a divorce, both of which devastate him. He appears to have a steady job, and even developed a relationship with his coworker Linny (Jess Weixler). But it’s obvious that recent events have left a gaping hole that David desperately needs to fill.
An opportunity comes when he meets Tommie (Oona Laurence). Tommie is an 11-year-old girl but looks younger. David meets Tommie in a parking lot, where her friends have dared her to bum a cigarette from him. Confused and a bit perturbed, David decides to teach Tommie a lesson by taking her into his car – pretending to kidnap her – but then bringing her home to two neglectful parents.
Tommie, like all children her age, is still trying to figure out who she is. She’s not quite sure what that means, but knows that she’s in search of it. This would explain why she is so willing to follow the peer pressure of her friends, and interact with this complete stranger of a man. Sadly, her parents don’t seem too invested in what she does. When David invites Tommie on a road trip to his family’s farm out in the countryside, she inexplicably agrees.
Why does David invite Tommie to go on this road trip, and why does she go along with it? Much of the writing sets a disconcerting tone. Partridge hints towards dire outcomes. David goes by a different name with Tommie, he convinces her not to call her parents, and only tells her half-truths about the ranch. When she gets upset and asks to go home, he very calmly convinces her to stay. What is his purpose in this? The way David controls Tommie is alarming, amplified by the fact that the title (which is also David’s last name) lends toward the predatory nature of his actions. In a few scenes – such as when he tries to get Tommie to take a shower – the situation gets so disturbing that it’s almost too much to witness.
Maybe a reason why I was so uneasy with this “friendship” is because of how well Partridge and Laurence are in their performances. Ross Partridge is at his best when battling his character’s inner turmoil. I was never really convinced that David would stoop so low as to find comfort in the company of a child, but I believed in his sadness. He has no clue as to what he is doing, causing things to unravel out of his control. Oona Laurence keeps up with Partridge step by step. Laurence makes Tommie feel older than she actually is, filling her with an emotional heft of someone who has already experienced much in her young life. She wants some connection – some type of bond with someone, anyone. She sees something in David that she can relate to, and attaches to him against better judgment.
Tommie and David are interesting characters, but I’m not so sure they work well together. The story tries to have them meet at a central point, where their dynamic is based on an even playing field. The issue is: the main premise stops that from happening. Instead of seeing two characters finding a catharsis through shared experiences, I couldn’t get over the fact that this was a grown adult kidnapping a young girl. It also didn’t help that the film continuously puts us in state of anxiety by having David repeatedly project pedophiliac tendencies. The pathos it tries so hard to illicit falters against the dangerous position they’re in.
I guess you can say I’m on the latter side of the fence with Lamb. That is not to say I don’t think there’s talent involved here. Both Partridge and Laurence give strong performances, and Partridge brings a subtle and thoughtful approach in the writing and direction. If you’re not like me and can get past the more unsettling themes, you’ll find a lot to admire. I was sadly not able to that. Partridge was up against a mountain very few filmmakers could have overcome. Given the material, he took it as far as it could probably go.
Also, be sure to check out our interview with director/writer/star Ross Partridge and producer/actress Jennifer Lafleur.