It’s not always clear whether Lamb really is a tale of a Love Too Pure For This World, or whether its protagonists merely think they’re acting one out, but that’s all part of its troubling fascination. It’s a film where the context and given circumstances are everything; scenes which would otherwise be charming and tender are instead incredibly tense, knowing what we know.
It’s the first film I’ve seen which I’m counting towards 2016, and it starts the year off fairly well. It’s definitely not for all tastes; my screening had three total attendees, including me–and the other two walked out before the film was finished. It’s no wonder that Lamb has made less than $15,000 to date. But, for all its faults, I found it to be very moving indeed.
David Lamb (writer-director Ross Partridge) is 47, going through a divorce (kicked out of the house, he’s living in a motel), dealing with the death of his father, and finding his position at work precarious owing to his affair with Linny (Jess Weixler), a younger co-worker. Tommie (Oona Laurence) is 11, lives with her indifferent parents, and appears to have only a few friends.
One day, after attending his father’s burial, David is sitting in a strip mall parking lot smoking, while Tommie and her friends hang out nearby. On a dare, Tommie approaches David and asks him for a cigarette, which he gives her, but she throws it away after a single puff. He questions how much her friends really value her if they would put her up to such a thing, and tells her to pretend that he is kidnapping her, to see if her friends react. They get into her car and he drives off, unsettling her, but leading her to realize that her supposed friends are really indifferent to her.
He also tells her his name is Gary.
They meet again, and she confirms her (now former) friends’ apathy. He buys her lunch, and they start to bond, spending time together frequently over the subsequent days. Finally, he asks her if she would like to join him on a trip to his father’s cabin in the mountains. She agrees, although she goes back and forth on whether or not to say something to her mother about. David talks her out of doing so.
After telling Linny that he’ll be going to the cabin to have some time to himself, he and Tommie set off, taking a multi-day trip to the cabin, posing as uncle and niece. Tommie continues to be alternately excited and uncertain about the trip, and one night David spills a hot drink on her and forces her to take a bath to keep from getting burned. She screams at him to go away and says she wants to go home.
However, they return to the road, and despite further trepidation on her part arrive at the cabin. They appear to be having a good time, but the owner of a neighboring property (Tom Bower) warns them about a neighbor who is distinctly unfriendly to trespassers…especially children.
Over the next few days, David and Tommie continue to alternate good times and bad; when the neighbor catches her sipping on a beer, David rebukes her and she becomes upset. On the other hand, she appears to genuinely enjoy being out among nature, having lived her entire life in the city. David remains concerned about the neighbor, who seems to be spying on them during the night, and goes to the neighbor’s house with a shotgun, but discovers that the neighbor is caring for his ailing wife.
One day, Linny arrives unannounced, and David forces Tommie to hide in the workshop on the property. He spends most of his time with Linny, while Tommie is cooped up in the workshop, growing increasingly frustrated and possibly coming down with the flu. One night, she starts to run away, then returns to the cabin and sees David and Linny having sex. He sees her as well.
The next morning, after throwing up, Tommie sees a passing emergency vehicle and walks in on the sleeping couple. Disgusted, she yells “Gary!” and awakens them. David claims that Tommie is his niece and that he was keeping her sequestered because she was sick, but Linny seems unconvinced and leaves. The emergency vehicle turns out to have been for the neighbor’s wife, who has died.
David and Tommie set out for home. David buys Tommie medicine and she seems to get better. One night, he breaks down in front of her, telling her to find him and “kick my fucking face in” if she ever feels that he ruined her life. Eventually, they arrive at a spot near her apartment block and he tells her they must part and never see each other again. After a tearful goodbye, he drives away, and she runs after him.
That Lamb is legally speaking the story of a kidnapping underscores every moment David and Tommie share, at least once they set out on their trip. The scenes where they enjoy nature together, or laugh, or seem simply to blossom in each other’s company, become nerve-wracking because, in the world we live in, a grown man and a young girl cannot (and should not) have such a relationship without blood ties–or at the very least, parental consent. That Tommie’s parents are so unsupportive and her friends are seemingly such poor influences doesn’t change that.
But they do add to the painful complexity of the situation, and lead one to what I consider one of the film’s central questions: are David and Tommie better off for having known each other, or worse off for having lost each other? The film doesn’t force an answer on us one way or the other.
In not making David a pure soul, the film leans just a little towards the latter. It’s David’s choices which drive the story, and he often chooses to manipulate. He manipulates Tommie by talking her out of abandoning the trip or at least contacting her mother, by lying about his name, by becoming a part of her life when every code of modern society says he should not be. And he manipulates Linny–whom, he tells Tommie, he does not love at all–by concealing Tommie from her and by offering the most transparent excuse when she does appear, which may be only the latest lie he has told her.
Essentially, he uses both of them to validate himself–Tommie to validate his capacity for kindness and paternalism, Linny to validate his masculinity and sexuality. We never meet his soon-to-be-ex-wife, nor do we ever learn more than her name; we meet his father, whom he does seem to genuinely care for but who himself appears to wallow in his wounded masculinity, brooding on the wife who left him years earlier. While not a total cipher, much of David’s background is left up to inference.
We learn less about Tommie, since less of the film is seen exclusively through her eyes; we catch a glimpse of her home life, with her mother (Lindsay Pulsipher) and (step?)father Jesse (Scoot McNairy, who seems to pop up everywhere), who lie on the couch, watching inane television, and responding to Tommie’s criticism of their behavior with inert irritation. Her friends do not even have dialogue; all we know of them is that they like to hang out around a run-down strip mall and give each other (especially Tommie) dares. Not exactly a nurturing environment for a young girl.
All the more unfortunate because, as we come to realize, Tommie could turn out just fine given the chance. She’s clearly intelligent–and certainly more curious than her parents–and capable of considerable compassion–and cynicism, suggesting she’ll die in the same neighborhood she was born in. In other respects she may be a child (she suggests telling everyone about her bond with David, suggesting it will be accepted “because it’s love”), but her wisdom makes her all the more compelling as a character.
The performances of Partridge and Laurence go a long way towards making David and Tommie as interesting as they are. Partridge’s worn, slightly seedy handsomeness (he suggests an older Jake Gyllenhaal, or David Strathairn as a lounge singer) makes an interesting contrast with David’s pathetic lot in life, and Matt Zoller Seitz’ review raises an interesting point; would a less-handsome leading man have gotten away with so much? But that aside, Partridge owns the inherent creepiness of David’s behavior without losing the essential pathos which allows us to understand the film’s central dynamic and not run screaming from the theater (though parents, especially the parents of daughters, might do so regardless).
Laurence is even more impressive. She’s shockingly diminutive–she looks closer to 8 than 11–but she nails Tommie’s ever-shifting emotions, from fear to delight to disgust to despair, often within the course of a single scene. She works extremely well with Partridge, clearly trusting him not only as a co-star but as a director, and it’s that trust which allowed the film to work at all. She has virtually none of the self-consciousness which mars so many child performances, her more studied moments seeming to represent Tommie’s attempts to appear more mature (not that she isn’t more mature than many of the people around her). She handles the heightened moments as well as the subtle ones, and in the end I can only say that we may have already seen the best juvenile performance of 2016.
The only other character of note, Linny, is the weakest facet of the film, and it surprised me to learn that the source novel was written by a woman (Bonnie Nadzam), since the character seems so much like a male fantasy: an attractive young woman who places herself at the disposal of our middle-aged, hard-luck protagonist. When she unexpectedly arrives at the cabin, it’s the film’s most contrived turn of events, and the fact that she leaves after seeing Tommie but presumably does not contact the authorities leaves a dangling thread at the end which is overshadowed by the more compelling ambiguity surrounding Tommie and David’s fates. She could arguably have been removed from the film, or at least from the third act, without losing much.
Weixler’s performance doesn’t help much; perhaps her mildly dull performance does accurately reflect what Linny would indeed be like in real life, but the character remains a weakness. The rest of the cast is adequate, but Partridge and Laurence dominate.
I haven’t read Nadzam’s novel, but I imagine some of the weaker lines in the script were simply transposed from it. Especially early on, there’s dialogue which feels altogether too “written”, which might have worked fine on the page but falls flat on the screen. Most of the script is solid–David and Tommie are certainly worthy creations–but the dialogue does wobble at times, and I initially figured I was in for a long ride.
Partridge does better as a director, keeping the story moving at a steady if occasionally poky pace. His greatest triumph, again, is in that central dynamic between him and Laurence, though his staging is consistently smooth. (The stairway sex scene between David and Linny is still ridiculous, but it’s not laughably played.) Nathan M. Miller’s cinematography is quite striking, with some lovely shots of cityscapes and the Wyoming countryside. Daniel Belardinelli’s score provides a suitable accompaniment. Technically, the film is quite solid, given what was probably a tight budget.
I feel obliged to mention the elephant in the room–the question of sexuality. It is never suggested that David’s interest in Tommie is inappropriate in that manner, and even moments which threaten to become ambiguous–like the scene where he forces her to take a bath after spilling a hot drink on her–do not do so. His psychological manipulation of her, prolonging the trip by talking her out of leaving or contacting her mother on multiple occasions, is in itself disturbing, but despite Tommie’s occasional looks of concern (hardly unwarranted), their relationship never crosses, or even threatens to cross, that particular line.
Lamb is teetering right on the verge of total obscurity; it will probably be gone by tomorrow from the theater where I saw it, it will likely make no impression with the awards groups, and it will probably receive a bare-bones DVD release which will be rapidly remaindered. Hell, at the screening I attended, the image wasn’t even properly framed, cutting off the opening credits at the bottom of the screen!
But, while not perfect, the two characters and performances at the heart of Lamb are so well-realized that I must recommend it, lest the labors of Partridge and Laurence be lost forever.