Rarely does a non-horror movie bring on such feelings of continuous discomfort and unease as audiences will likely feel here. Rather than a plot built around the supernatural or a serial killer, “Lamb” focuses on the unconventional friendship between a 47-year-old man and an 11-year-old girl to elicit those same emotions. There’s constant acknowledgment of the weirdness in this pairing, but that doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable.
Based on Bonnie Nadzam’s novel, “Lamb” explores the relationship between two broken people. In addition to duties as writer and director, Ross Partridge stars as David Lamb, a man whose father has just died, whose job is endangered, and whose marriage is equally in trouble. He searches for solace in an affair with a colleague (Jess Weixler), but it’s only when he meets young Tommie (Oona Laurence) that he seems to find direction. In the moments of their first meeting in a parking lot, David gives her a cigarette to satisfy her friends’ dare, even though there’s little doubt she’s underage. Tommie is equally lost, grasping at adulthood in ways that aren’t uncommon for tweens and young teens: clomping around in heels, shaving her legs, holding a purse she claims is full of makeup. Her mother is uninvolved and uninterested, only looking up from the TV to yell when Tommie returns too late at night.
Early interactions between David and Tommie play like a mix between a cautionary tale and a date, with full awareness around how inappropriate their relationship is. “Maybe this should be our last outing for a while?” David says. “Why? Because it’s weird?” Tommie responds, to which David replies, “Yeah, because it’s weird.” Though David’s heart could be in the right place in his attempts to connect with Tommie, his plan to help expand her horizons involves taking a willing 11-year-old to show her the beauty of his family’s cabin in the Rockies without her mother’s knowledge. Almost on a whim, they leave the city behind, and while Tommie initially enjoys the trip, she soon becomes homesick. There are a number of squirm-inducing moments between the two as they get closer to their destination and once they arrive, revealing both their connection as well as how Tommie is truly a child.
For being so young, Laurence displays an emotional honesty with vulnerability that shines through every frame. Her face brightens in moments then ably transitions to sadness and fear. She has previously shown depth in both “Southpaw” and “I Smile Back,” and “Lamb” is more evidence that she’s one of the best young actors working today. As David, Partridge has the less obviously impressive role, but it’s a complicated one. He struggles believably, but — as director, screenwriter, and actor — he never pushes the character into total irredeemability. Weixler, as well as Joel Murray and Scoot McNairy, make brief appearances, but this is a movie driven by these two actors alone, and they’re quite capable in every moment.
Cinematographer Nathan M. Miller (who cut his teeth as with camera work on films like “Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister”) does a fine job capturing both the bleak boredom of the Chicago neighborhood in the film’s first third and the idyllic peace of rural Wyoming in the following acts. The urban locations are all concrete and glaring lights, while the country scenes feature grass waving in the wind, sunlight streaming through clouds, and cloud-dappled blue skies. The transition affects the audience just as it does Lamb and Tommie. There are views that are so beautiful that it’s easy to see for a moment why David wants to share this experience with Tommie, regardless of how and why he brings her there. Miller deserves special credit for beautiful shots that silhouette the actors against the sky, both in daylight and in a sunset scene that feels truly special. A larger production with a crew to match might have struggled to get the shot in the perfect moment with the light fading, but this small film gets that window and it pays off.
Though there are plenty of connections in cast and crew to the films of the Duplass Brothers and their circle, “Lamb” has a different feeling than most of those indies with little comedy and much quieter sensibility. However, Partridge’s drama does share their emphasis on dialogue, characters, and relationships. The interactions between David and Tommie lie somewhere closer to those in “Leon: The Professional” than in more lurid films about relationships between men and girls, but their connection clearly crosses a number of lines.
“Lamb” is morally and emotionally complex in a way that most films aren’t. The road to hell is absolutely paved with good intentions here, but that motivation leads to what is unmistakably a kidnapping. What’s interesting about “Lamb” is that it doesn’t stand in judgment of its protagonist; it neither condemns him for what are undeniably bad and illegal choices, nor does it celebrate them either. Though not always successful, this is a complicated film that should cause its audience to continue to think about its characters and the actions they take. [B]