Review: 'Lamb'

Strong performances anchor 'Lamb'—a film about misguided romance.
YOUNG EWE: Oona Laurence is excellent in the role of Tommie, a young girl who is lured away by a stranger.

I'm going to describe the premise of a movie, and if your first reaction to that description is: "there is no way in hell that I will watch this," I understand. Every viewer has a deal breaker, a film about a subject they wouldn't watch; it might be cruelty to animals, home invasions or blood of any sort.

Ross Partridge's risky film, Lamb, is about an 11-year-old girl who goes travelling with a 47-year-old male stranger into the countryside of Colorado. This subject would make a Jezebel essayist out of many a viewer. The actors play it as a desperate love—lovers on the lam(b), as in film noir. If Tommie (the remarkable Oona Laurence) is the lamb of the title, does this make 47-year-old male (writer, director and star, Ross Partridge) a smiling wolf? In fact, it's the other way around—this kidnapper is named David Lamb.

Bonnie Nadzam's source novel has a hard-boiled, city edge—Tommie is described as "a freckled pig," a plump little reject; David Lamb as the kind of older 50-ish slob anyone would avoid. The difference between the source and the film is as severe a change of tone as I've seen since Steven Shainberg's Secretary and the far more tough Mary Gaitskill story from which it was derived.

David Lamb's bitter old father has just died of alcoholism. After the funeral, Lamb is trying to go back to his job, but his boss recognizes Lamb as a man on the verge of a breakdown. (As the boss, Joel Murray gives us a measure of Lamb's normalness when he's not under strain. It's superior character acting. Give this underpraised sibling of Bill Murray an inexpensive suit and a cup of coffee to hold and you've almost got a movie right there.) Lamb encounters Tommie where she's hanging around the parking lot of a Family Dollar store with some fellow school-skippers; one of her friends dares her to bum a cigarette from the lone man. Lamb decides to teach Tommie a lesson about talking to strangers and lures her into his car.

Taking the girl back to her home, Lamb tells Tommie he's thinking of a trip to the cabin out on his father's land. Without telling her mother, Tommie slips away with this stranger. The older man is as much of a gent as a kidnapper can be—he gives his illegal travelling companion privacy and a way to get back home. But the two are forced to delude people they meet, which causes a wedge. And then Lamb is tracked down to his father's cabin by Linny (Jess Weixler), a lady from work with whom Lamb had a no-strings affair.

Partridge's approach is lush and strangely sweet. It transfers the book's Chicago to sad exurban Denver—the camera keeps returning to a commercial strip of fast food outlets and bus benches. It resolves itself in pastures underneath the Rockies, with mile-long trains in the distance. Both the photographer Nathan M. Miller and the startlingly poised acting by the young Laurence balance the looming threat of physicality with ridiculous romantic delusions.

What goes on here is as warped and fraught as the encounter between Sybil and Seymour in J.D. Salinger's "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" or the arrival of Magwitch into Pip's life in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. But these unequal partners consider their vacation a torrential romance—the delusion of a cracked, middle-aged man meeting the feverish imagination of an 11-year-old girl. Tommie is too young to naturally assume that adult males are only interested in one thing.

The dynamics of the film are like Lolita—there's even a scene where Tommie gets a fever, like Dolores Haze—but the friendship of this abject man and this neglected girl has a threat that keeps you hooked. Partridge's Lamb is so committed that you almost believe there's a mitigating side to his psychotic idea to haul a city girl out to see the beauty of the prairie. The movie is a kind of feat for Partridge as director, but it's Laurence who consistently surprises the viewer with an understanding that goes far beyond her years.

NR; 96 Mins.
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