LAMB (2015) review
written by: Ross Partridge
produced by: Mel Eslyn, Taylor Williams and Jennifer Lafleur
directed by: Ross Partridge
rated: runtime: 96 min.
U.S. release date: March 14, 2015 (SXSW), January 8, 2015 (limited), January 15, 2015 (Gene Siskel Film Center & VOD)
“Lamb” will be an unsettling and infuriating viewing experience for most people. There may be an understandable curiosity about the plot, which revolves around two strangers who develop a friendship and then go on a journey together in an attempt to reconnect with the beauty of the world outside their own toxic environments – but the two strangers here are a middle-aged man and a prepubescent girl. That’s strange and disturbing, especially knowing the kind of news we would see two such characters show up in. Such a friendship should never occur and is uncomfortable to watch, which is exactly what “Lamb” is counting on.
“Lamb” starts off in a low-income Chicago neighborhood, where we’re introduced to David Lamb (Ross Patridge), a frazzled lonely 47 year-old who watches over his long-gone, near catatonic father (Ron Burkhardt). We get the impression he’s been separated from his wife for a while and maintains ‘friends with benefits’ fling with his a co-worker, Linny (Jess Weixler) at his office. After his father’s death, David is discovered sitting on a curb of a run-down roadside strip of stores by 11 year-old, Tommie (Oona Laurence), who approaches him on a dare from nearby friends. She asks to bum a smoke off David and, looking back at her leering friends, he knows all too well that they’re setting Tommie up to get embarrassed or just have a reason to ridicule the girl.
David decides to teach her friends a lesson by dragging Tommie into his truck and driving away – making it look like any random stranger can snatch a girl away, never to be seen again. Tommie, who maintains a street-smart exterior, is thrown by this yet does her best to hold back any fear as David reassures her she’s lucky he’s a good guy, but “I could be taking you somewhere to kill you right now.” Er, not too comforting for a child to hear, regardless of how streetwise she is. He apologizes if he frightened her and the two go their separate ways.
But something clicked for David during their encounter, because he seeks her out again and they hang out some more. At this time, we also follow Tommie to her home, where her lazy mother, Linda (Lindsay Pulsipher) can be found lounging on the couch in front of the TV with her cranky live-in boyfriend, Jesse (Scoot McNairy). The two don’t even bother looking at Tommie after she’s been gone for who knows how long, which make the girl’s next move understandable.
When David meets up with her again he proposes she join him on a road trip to his ranch property in what we assume is Colorado. He tells her it won’t even be for a week with the goal being to get away, go on an adventure. She takes it in, tries to come across like she’s cool with it (but we know better) and he reassures her that at any time she wants the trip to end, he’ll put her on a plane and send her home. She doesn’t need to worry about packing anything, he’ll by her whatever she needs. She agrees to go along with it – even after he tells her that people are going to think what they’re doing will look like a kidnapping – that’s because it is and things start to get really concerning from here on out.
The success of such a premise rests on the portrayals of these two complex and troubled characters. Partridge’s performance has to offer some way for the audience to sympathize or connect with him and not just see him as a possible pedophile or an overall threat. Although David is a difficult character to figure out, we do go along with him for the most part – out of our own curiosity to see what his motives and plans are, if he has any – despite him exuding an increasing amount of creepy the more the story unfolds. Partridge plays David as a pretty bad impromptu liar with an understandable paranoia about him once they two embark on their trip, but he thankfully never overacts or conveys David as a one-dimensional villain.
Laurence however, is something to behold. The young girl has been acting for a while now, in both movies and TV, last seen in last year’s “Southpaw” and “I Smile Back” in memorable roles that proved she is definitely one to watch. This is probably the closest to a lead role of any movie I’ve seen her in and she handles this difficult role with uncanny intuitiveness and authenticity. It’s not an easy role, since Tommie is at the age where she doesn’t want to be treated or seen as a child, nor does she want to be talked to like one – something she reminds David of continuously. But we know she’s still just a girl, one who can only hold on to her toughened facade for so long. Pretty soon, she’s going to want her mommy, regardless of how much of a derelict she is. Laurence covers all of that and more here, she’s believably belligerent and achingly vulnerable.
Not only does Partridge serve as director here, he also wrote the screenplay which adapts the novel by Bonnie Nadzam. I wasn’t really crazy about the last movie I saw Partridge in “The Middle Distance“, mainly because the writing had him playing kind of a one-dimensional jerk – but there’s so much more to work off of with David Lamb, most of which is internal and yet what he’s doing externally is frustrating and disturbing. As a director, Partridge’s deliberate framing and staging often emphasizes the two main characters sharing the screen together – whether they’re sitting on a curb in a medium shot or a wide pulled back shot of the two at a gas station in the middle of nowhere – all in an effort to show how the two are seen, how they’re viewed by others in the film and the audience.
One consistent aspect I appreciated about the screenplay is how first impressions of characters are rarely what they seem, just as it is in real life. For example, once David and Tommie (both of whom use Gary and Emily as aliases while on the road) arrive at his ranch they encounter Foster (great character actor, Tom Bower) a somewhat nosy neighbor in overalls who comes across as a creepy old guy – but eventually we learn he’s more awkward than he is harmful and is more occupied with taking care of his ill spouse than he is keeping tabs on his visiting neighbors. The same observation can be applied to David and Tommie, as we wonder what to make of them up – what to feel for them – until the very end.
Because most viewers are (hopefully) adults, they will be trying to figure out what exactly David is up to. What’s his endgame, does he have one and what is compelling him to travel with his unrelated young girl? Why can’t he just leave her alone and what does he think he can provide for her? Is he trying out being a father? How does he envision all of this playing out? Those are just some of the questions I found surfacing as I watched “Lamb”. It’s good to have a movie that evoke questions and even one that leaves us with less answers, but if such questions distract you from the movie’s story there can be problems. I’m not saying that’s what happened here for me, but it came pretty close.
“Lamb” cannot be placed in one specific genre. It’s a drama, sure, but there’s palpable tension and suspense, since the movie essentially revolves around child abduction. Partridge’s directorial debut was indeed a confounding viewing experience for me, yet it’s clear it succeeded in delivering a certain tone of unease. I’m may not sure be sure what the film’s point was apart from obvious provocation, but it nevertheless warrants lengthy discussion.