This is a reprint of our review from SXSW 2015.
Lamb is a deeply uncomfortable drama in the icy vein of Lolita, at least superficially – a sublimely acted but inherently disturbing meditation on virtue and vice, and the blurred lines between them that present themselves over the course of one 45-year-old man’s spur-of-the-moment camping trip with an 11-year-old girl he befriended in a burned-out Chicago parking lot.
The film is as dangerously compelling and quietly terrifying as that premise suggests. Should protagonist David Lamb (Ross Partridge, who also directed and adapted the novel by Bonnie Nadzam) succumb to his most immoral instincts and transform an initially innocuous relationship with the young, malleable Tommie (Oona Laurence) into something far more sinister, humanity is essentially screwed. After all, symbolism runs rampant in Lamb (the title alone questions which character is the real innocent). Any audience member can find some part of themselves in its protagonist, a lonely man who recently buried his father and watched his marriage disintegrate before his eyes. Lamb, at the film’s outset, is hopelessly adrift, floating through the ennui of middle age without a modicum of engagement. He’s also a habitual liar, and this trait has contributed to the breaking down of any and all personal relationships.
He needs something, a salvation he can’t identify but that he hopes can come from the restorative power of nature. Lamb’s curiosity is also piqued by the possibility he sees in those younger and less dog-eared than himself – especially Tommie, a young girl who first trots out to him, tarted up in high heels and a tightened tee, in hopes of bumming a cigarette and earning the admiration of more popular girls who’ll never give it. The kid (that’s not meant to be demeaning – she’s a minor in every sense of the word, save her capacity for emotion) is as rudderless as he is. Her parents are sweaty, couch-dwelling bums, and her friends don’t bat an eyelash when Lamb pretends to kidnap her in order to teach the girl a lesson about getting into cars with strangers (it’s as self-defeating as it sounds).
Both of them, living disparate lives, aspire to some kind of greater purpose and awareness. Lamb, at a crossroads in his life, sees no meaningful way forward. Meanwhile, Tommie, her whole life in front of her, lacks the hard-earned savvy to even set a course. The two feel a connection neither can explain or completely justify, no matter how hard they try. And Lamb, without any other leads on how to bring significance back into his life, opts to take Tommie under his wing, abducting her (with her consent – though what that means at her age is properly ambiguous) for a trip to the Rockies, where he hopes the cabin he spent time as a child will imbue in them new objective and opportunity. The pair are aware that society would frown on their whole relationship and scream shrilly at their excursion – but they do it anyway, hoping that Lamb’s morality and Tommie’s innocence will keep their relationship pure and advantageous for both parties.
That’s where the “deeply uncomfortable” part comes in. Lamb and Tommie’s friendship is inescapably creepy and socially unacceptable from the outset, although there’s nothing demonstrably wrong with it. Once they get to the woods, though, the two are challenged and confronted with painful truths about their own minds and motivations. Partridge, both behind and in front of the camera, lets the tension build as if dragging a knife across his audience’s throat. The heart-in-mouth revulsion of Lamb and Tommie’s sickening will-they-won’t-they relationship, intensified through long shots and agonizingly prolonged dialogue, has a transfixing power.
As an actor, meanwhile, Partridge turns Lamb, a figure most of us would usually shun in gut-reaction disgust and fear, into a relatable, realistic character. Even as he toys with Tommie and mulls his next move, the man evokes sympathy and compassion. This is not a bad guy. Though his relationship with Tommie may be skewering her development more than supporting it, his eyes ache with the heartbreak of a guy who can’t do good no matter how hard he tries. Partridge, both in how he performs the character and in how he writes him, avoids easy escape routes. For better or worse, Tommie is trapped with Lamb, and we are likewise stuck with the pair, anticipating their next move with bated breath.
Laurence, as the young Tommie, helps to heighten that edge-of-your-seat discomfort. The young actress, arms like twigs and eyes wide as saucers, is the picture of juvenile naiveté, but her performance digs much deeper than that, unearthing Tommie’s more mature predilections and ponderings. Though many will enter into Lamb expecting to observe its eponymous character’s every move with trepidation, hers also induce a certain dread and distress. At what point is she, a child, responsible for her own actions?
One wouldn’t expect a softly lit, cinéma-vérité work to conjure such intense feeling. Partridge has constructed that unlikeliest of thrillers – one in which two characters enter into a crucible, and both metamorphosize into something new, but in which both that process and its conclusion are as hazily, unobtrusively presented as the opaque surface of a flowing river. Whether Lamb is in fact a thriller should be up for debate. The film is an unsettling Rorschach test of its audience – what one makes of its murky surface depends solely on what one sees reflected there.
Is David Lamb a good man? No – his slow seduction of Tommie (for, sexuality be damned, that is what it is) should come with a trigger warning. Then: what has society dictated he must be, and should he deviate from that, is he truly worthy of society’s condemnation? Is Tommie a victim of, or a willing accomplice to, Lamb’s journey of self-discovery? Is their relationship irrefutably wrong, or could such a fragile fracturing of societal standards exist without shattering the overall structure? Lamb asks tough questions. Lamb may, as he says, be trying to save Tommie, to steer her clear of the apathetic, aimless life he has lived. That, on its own, is not a detestable purpose. When one adds in their ages and nebulous predispositions, though, things get a whole lot trickier.
Partridge’s greatest triumph with Lamb may be how he maintains a veneer of impartiality, even when dealing with such a thorny, complex relationship. He’s made a love story, a tale of seeping horror, an exploration of the moral fabric that keeps generations apart, and a subtle mediation on the rejuvenating powers of nature. Most of all, though, he’s made a film that dares to swim in perilously deep waters but is never fully submerged by them. Lamb‘s candor, willpower and thoughtfulness in addressing its central questions is as thrillingly unusual as it is critical to answering them.
Both gut-wrenching and gutsy, Lamb is a deeply uncomfortable mediation on virtue and vice that will haunt dreams and waking thoughts alike - in no small part due to its brilliantly observed performances and writing that sends a shiver down the spine even as it touches the heart.