Innocence That Disturbs The Mind In 'Lamb'
Although it’s been a couple of weeks since the South By Southwest Film Festival ended, I can’t stop thinking about Lamb. The film, based on the prize-winning novel by Bonnie Nadzam, is about David Lamb, an emotionally adrift middle-aged man who forms a curious friendship with Tommie, an 11-year-old girl, following the death of his father, and in the aftermath of his own divorce. Sensing she’s just as lonely and neglected as he, Lamb convinces her to join him on a road trip to the wilderness, to a cabin that he once spent time in as a boy.
You can easily be forgiven if you think this is going to go to a bad, bad place. I did. And I was, and still am, conflicted over my own reaction to the film and its slippery protagonist, who made me very, very uncomfortable. When I spoke to the film’s director and star, Ross Partridge, I was a little relieved to find out I wasn’t alone.
“I was conflicted about some of the choices ‘Gary’ was making,” Partridge said, referring to the film’s protagonist by the name he goes by with Tommie. “He’s spiritually adrift,” Partridge continued. “He’s so damaged that he’s trying to do anything to connect.”
Early on in the movie, Lamb plucks Tommie (played strikingly by Tony winner Oona Laurence) off the street in front of her friends to prove a point. He could have kidnapped her right then and there, and she should be more careful. He drops her off at home, where Tommie barely registers on her parents’ radar.
“The connection that he sees in her is the child that he sees in himself,” Partridge elaborated, “… the child that didn’t get the nurturing, that didn’t get the love.”
Partridge continued by explaining David Lamb’s background story. “The son that had to come home to a house where his brother, literally, was so neglected [by his father] that he slept behind a gas station and finally disappeared; the pain and the hurt and the lack of guidance in his life that’s brought him to this place … You can easily judge him as an adult … but looking at this man, you start to understand that he’s not quite a fully realized adult.”
While David/Gary’s words and actions may seem innocent enough to him (as a lamb?), to most adults they’re downright dangerous. “You are special,” he tells Tommie. “You are so beautiful.”
Giant. Red. Flags.
David invites Tommie to play hooky, join him in his hotel room for TV watching, and eventually hit the road to experience nature. Over and over again, he reminds her she’s free to leave any time she wants.
Both Partridge and his young co-star Laurence, all of 11 years at the time of shooting, deliver intense, piercing performances. Never was I less than convinced that their relationship wasn't genuine — and wholly inappropriate. When the two finally separate, it’s painful for a myriad of reasons. “We shot that scene on the second day, and she brought so much life to it,” Partridge remembers.
Co-producer Jennifer Lafleur concurred. “She was so committed to the story and the characters. We had to convince her to take breaks and go home, and not stay on set every second.” Acknowledging the sensitive material in the film, Lafleur added, “[Oona’s] father became a great confidant and touchstone for Ross during the shooting.”
Even as I continued my conversation with Partridge and Lafleur, I still couldn’t help but feel, perhaps they did too good a job. Maybe Lamb plays with the audience’s fears a little too much for its story about broken people trying to make a connection to get across without hindrance, without a disturbing definition to it. I wondered if different audience members had different reactions to the film. Partridge said he’s been surprised so far.
“It seems … women are far more compassionate about [the movie] than men. Maybe it’s just a female, nurturing kind of quality. Young women seem to really identify ... and seem very compassionate towards Lamb and his trajectory. And older women and men go back and forth," Partridge said, noting that many men have had a strong, angry reaction.
I took a breath, and told him my daughter was turning 10 in a few days … But I’m still thinking about this movie.