Lamb Director Ross Partridge on Man-Made Virtue and Vice

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<i>Lamb</i> Director Ross Partridge on Man-Made Virtue and Vice

Another great year in cinema is behind us, and the question we ask heading into 2016 is a familiar one: What’s next? How will directors, new and seasoned, continue to create bolder and more ambitious projects? What stories have yet to be told, and who will have the audacity to tell them?

When Ross Partridge talks about his latest film, Lamb, you hear something in his voice that suggests we can trust him to carry a certain cinematic torch—it’s a sense of responsibility. Many directors might come across a bold and provocative story like Bonnie Nadzam’s novel, and decide that it is worthy of an adaptation. But it’s the care and tenderness with which Partridge presents his version of Nadzam’s work that makes him a powerful representative for the best of what’s next in film.

“It’s so deeply psychological,” Partridge says of the story he first fell in love with a few years back. A middle-aged man, David Lamb, is surrounded by loss and seeks solace in a little girl, Tommie, who appears to be just as alone and lonely as he is. The unfolding of their indefinable relationship makes for a troubling and equally indefinable viewing experience.

“Of course I was terrified,” Partridge admits, particularly of taking on the role of the main character. Depending on the reaction to the story, he knew people would either see the fascinating complications that he saw, or he’d be vehemently attacked and, perhaps, never get an audience back.

“But the same thing that terrified me was the same thing that intrigued me,” he goes on. “In trying to translate that to film, I’m hoping that the audience will understand it. We have to flex a different part of our muscles to allow [the connection between David and Tommie] to have a chance to be something else from what we assume.”

What we assume, of course, is the worst. And there is not one moment in the film when we are fully relieved of such fears. The tension comes from our wavering as an audience, between disgust, disdain and disappointment in the main character, and a deep understanding that continues to creep in, despite our better judgement. David should know better than to pursue a bond with a neglected young girl, and we should know better than to empathize with him, or even be interested in his narrative. In any story of conflict, blame must be assigned, but Lamb makes this process incredibly difficult. Do we blame David? Or, Tommie’s emotionally unavailable and disinterested parents? The destitute community that wrought them? It’s not an easy choice, because of the manner in which David is presented.

“David’s reality is so skewed, and sad,” Partridge says. “In Tommie, he sees the child in himself. He’s trying to correct the ills of his past by doing what he thinks is the right thing—what he needed when he was a kid. It’s not right, it’s not correct, but in his reality it seems like perhaps this is okay. And that’s why it’s uncomfortable, because you can see all that sadness, and you hope that maybe there’s something here that creates light in their lives.”

We might also ask ourselves, then, if we should blame the filmmaker, for presenting us with this story, or perhaps his cinematographer, Nathan M. Miller, for daring to provide us with gorgeous landscape shots and a certain light that captures the very human emotions at the center of it all.

“We needed to have the other side of this. There has to be something else in David Lamb’s existence, and it is these majestical kinds of places—and it’s not man-made. It’s part of the natural process of life, and it’s the alternative to his life where, basically, all of these bad and horrible things happened to him. And he’s doing, unfortunately, possibly the same things.”

At the crux of Lamb is, really, an age-old philosophical quandary. Seth Benardete described Sophocles’ Antigone as a character whose attempts at devotion to family ultimately impeded on perfect devotion to family. Those characters who strive so deeply, so vehemently towards some moral right, often push themselves over to the other, darker side of it. Such is the nature of virtue (and vice). David so strongly believes in a child’s right to be loved (whether the child is himself, or Tommie), that he is willing to harm a child in the process of exacting that love. It’s not right. And it’s not correct. But it’s a tragic result of being human. Still, that rationalization does not make the experience of Lamb any easier, and Partridge is fully aware of this.

“I’m moved, I’m tormented, I feel so sad and I feel in some ways glad that they had this experience,” he says, describing his own personal state when he finished reading the novel. “That, to me, was worth exploring.”

And so he took a risk, but he did not jump blindly into the murky waters of sexual and emotional taboo. He felt a sense of responsibility to the original work, and especially to his “amazing” co-star Oona Laurence, whose father was on set with her during the filming process.

“Oona had a huge understanding [of the story] already, but we would talk about things prior,” he explains. “I deferred to her a lot of the time.”

And like so many other storytellers, Partridge concedes that his film is another love story—but not the romantic kind we’re accustomed to, nor a darker, more malicious sort.

“The basis of this story is love—not two people falling in love, but two people searching for love that they never got as kids.”

Indeed, there is an intimacy between David and Tommie, and it’s rightfully taboo. But Partridge, like Nadzam before him, wants to know what else it might be. Is there something authentic, or at least more complicated beyond the taboo? Is David a good guy, who could have been a bad guy—with one more wrong turn? Or is he a bad guy, who’s been merely given the privilege of a complicated narrative? And is it at all possible, that such a guy could provide something meaningful to a little girl who knows she’s likely to die in a small town, in front of a big TV, like so many of those around her?

These are not questions that we’re “allowed” to ask. And as an audience, we are not “allowed” to encourage or entertain such questions by championing a film like Lamb. For this reason, the story and Partridge’s insistence on telling it—and making it haunting, uncomfortable and beautiful—is an achievement that goes far beyond that of being an effective and affecting movie. It’s a game changer that points at other directors and storytellers and says, “Your turn.” Your turn, to ask those questions that you’re not supposed to ask, and to invite your audience to do the same.

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste, and a writer for Salon and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.