Who’s in the mood for a child abduction?
Directed by Ross Partridge
Cast: Ross Partridge, Oona Laurence
That Lamb, the new film from writer-director-star Ross Partridge (Interstate 84), shares certain structural and thematic connections to Lolita (both the Nabakov book and the Kubrick film) is no accident. Although the two works of art are worlds apart in time and place, no one involved could have been unaware of the similarities they do share. The low-budget indie psycho(sexual?)drama is based on the award-winning novel by Bonnie Nadzam, who was consciously contrasting innocence and peril in her story of a messed-up older man and the much-younger object of his obsession.
In Lamb we are introduced to David Lamb (Partridge, who could either pass for George Clooney’s out-of-work cousin or Dermot Mulroney’s stunt double). Lamb is middle-aged, on the verge of a divorce, unhappy in his job, having an affair with a coworker, living in a hotel room and dealing with a dying father. He’s ripe for the emotional meltdown of a traditional midlife crisis. (Buy a sports car? Start a band?) Instead, he crosses paths with a poor, neglected 11-year-old named Tommie (Oona Laurence from Southpaw). She totters up to him in a convenience store parking lot on a pair of outsized high heels and tries to bum a cigarette. Sensing a much more innocent young girl than the outer package would indicate, Lamb tries to help her. He does so in just about the worst way possible: faking a “kidnapping” in order to scare the negligent schoolmates with which she is playing hookey. He takes her home afterward, chastising her gullibility and warning her that he “could have been a bad man” (which sounds like less of a generalized warning and more mood-dependent).
Days later, Lamb locates Tommie again, apologizes for the scare and makes a suggestion. Maybe they both need a break from the confines of ugly, urban Chicago. Lamb is planning on going to his family’s cabin in rural Wyoming for a week or so, and he figures he might as well take Tommie with him—without telling her mother, of course. It will be their little secret. Lonely and unhappy, Tommie readily agrees. What follows is essentially a cross-country, slow-motion child abduction.
Lamb walks an unsteady line between creepy and sympathetic. It doesn’t overtly paint its protagonist as a child predator. Instead, it appears to cast the film as a sort of bittersweet story of emotional connection between two unhappy loners beaten down by life. (Who, really, is the lost little lamb of this story?) Of course the idea of an 11-year-old girl running off with a fortysomething stranger isn’t most people’s idea of kosher. And Lamb doesn’t exactly pretend otherwise. Lamb is clearly manipulating Tommie. And Tommie clearly has a few adult ideas in her skull—even if she doesn’t fully understand them all. But the film never directly broaches the idea of sex between these two. That’s where it diverges wildly from Lolita, and it’s both good and bad. The film certainly courts the controversy and invites discussion of its touchy (to say the least) subject. Is Lamb “grooming” Tommie as an intimate life partner ... or is he misguidedly protecting her innocent young state of being in the stupidest possible way? Feel free to discuss over coffee.
Partridge has a certain tarnished charisma, and he’s sort of perfect for this imperfect role. Laurence nicely toes the line between precocious and naive. Together, they make a compelling duo. The film is never less than watchable, and it’s hard not to hang around to find out where fate is going to take these two broken characters. But it’s certainly not everybody’s cup of tea. If any film should come with the label “trigger warning,” this is it.
The hard part is that it’s difficult to figure out just what Lamb is trying to say. The narrative is almost more unsettling because it refuses to cross certain lines. We get the idea that Lamb has had a rough life—and maybe he really is trying to correct the wrongs done to him by befriending little Tommie and showing her a bit of real world beauty. But if that’s the case, why does he continually lie to her (refusing to even give her his real name)? Why does the film keep presenting us with borderline icky situations (as when Lamb orders Tommie to take a bath)?
Lamb isn’t an easy film to categorize. It mercilessly screws with our comfort level. It pulls too many punches to qualify as a genuinely dark film and pushes too many social boundaries to earn its sad sack sentimentality. But there is, in the end, a wounded logic to our two characters’ string of terrible decisions. And it’s this line of thinking that makes Lamb the sort of car crash you can’t look away from.