Ross Partridge’s Lamb is a film whose central relationship begins from a very obscure and treacherous place, then asks us to invest emotions into said relationship for the remainder of the film. That, along with some pretentious dialogue, is only the root of a problematic drama whose strained seriousness never really develops into anything more than a psychologically weak masquerade.
Yet, solid emotional and mental boundaries are not the strength when we first meet David (played by director Partridge himself), holed up in a shabby motel room and carrying on a phone sex conversation with co-worker Linny (Jess Weixler). Their conversation has less to do with actual stimulating talk than some weird idealized state that David wishes to envision her in. It’s only halfway during the talk that Linny tries to appeal to David’s practical senses, informing him she knows his wife has kicked him out and he’s living in said dilapidated motel room. His indifference to her pleas for the two of them to live together only further paints David as a screwed-up loner.
Things don’t get any better for him after the death of his father. These circumstances, along with an unspoken sadness that permeated the air between father and son in one brief earlier scene, sets the stage for the drastic action David takes next.
Enter Tommie (Oona Laurence), aged 11. Dressed up in high heels that are too big, plastered in make-up that belies her uncertainty in cosmetic accentuation and pushed into approaching David, a stranger in a parking lot, by her friends wanting him to buy cigarettes, Lamb enters its first stretch of uncomfortable waters.
The two have a sort of camaraderie, broken only after David rushes her into his SUV and drives off with her, telling young Tommie it’s a practical joke on her friends. Strangely, even though this stranger has essentially kidnapped her, Lamb’s script, also written by Partridge, continues the easy camaraderie between young girl and creepy man as they drive around for awhile before David drops her home.
Perhaps it’s the fact Tommie’s parents (Lindsay Pulsipher and Scoot McNairy) are your typical layabout deadbeats — given one lazy scene to shout guttural insults and ground her — that ultimately drives Tommie back into the patriarchal fantasy figure of David. Whatever the reason, and Lamb is full of obscure reasoning, the two meet again and plan a trip together. David promises to show her the hurtling rural landscapes she’s never gotten from the concrete jungle of the city and, possibly, help heal himself.
Based on a novel by Bonnie Nadzam, the potential for Lamb to be an uncomfortable exercise in a damaged man’s flailing attempts to right previous wrongs in his life is there, yet the film that exists is just uncomfortable. The tightrope act of David and Tommie’s relationship is highly unbelievable, despite a good performance from young Oona Laurence, whose eyes and facial expressions register all the confusion, misunderstanding and wide-eyed optimism required for the role.
In addition, Partridge’s script reads like a terrible film-school project. In one scene, he tells Tommie that the life lessons he’s taught her will ennoble her to be, paraphrasing, a tree in a land full of ass-colored buildings. Whether this type of mislaid folk poetry inhabits the novel, I couldn’t say, but it feels heavily earnest and undercuts any genuine warmth established between the characters.
Getting beyond the troublesome collision of 45-year-old man and 11-year-old girl is hard enough, but when Lamb begins to layer in such obviously stilted dialogue as that, the climb becomes almost impossible.
Lamb opens on Friday, January 15 at the AMC Firewheel and AMC Grapevine Mills.