Lamb toys with its audience, playing mind games until the very last frame. Even after the credits roll, questions linger about motive, intention, and right and wrong. The only certainty is that Ross Partridge, who wrote the screenplay, directed and stars, has crafted a gem of a film.
Based on the novel by Bonnie Nadzam, Lamb opens on David Lamb (Partridge) as his life is imploding. His marriage has just failed and his invalid father, whom we briefly see in a neglected Chicago home-turned-hovel, soon passes away. Instead of earning sympathy, David immediately proves to be an untrustworthy and unreliable protagonist.
In a motel room surrounded by boxes and belongings, he calls up his younger co-worker and mistress Linny (Jess Weixler) for phone sex. He lies about the state of his marriage, whispering that he’s afraid his wife might overhear them, and continues the charade even when Linny says she’s heard that he’s now living in a motel. This early scene is baffling—why would he not want his lover to come over?—but in hindsight, it sets up the character perfectly for the journey ahead.
Despondent about his father’s death and the tumult in his life, David turns his attention to an 11-year-old girl named Tommie (Oona Laurence), a latchkey kid from a broken home. They meet in a strip mall parking lot, with Tommie’s ill-fitting tube top-and-heels ensemble reminiscent of Jodie Foster’s Iris in Taxi Driver. Tommie’s been dared by her frenemies to ask David for a cigarette, which he obliges. In a chilling sequence, David forces her into his car and says he’ll “pretend” to kidnap her to teach her friends a lesson about approaching strange men. Laurence conveys a palpable fear as Tommie shrinks into the passenger door as far away from the man as possible. Relief washes over her (and us) when he drops her off at home.
Although it might be too late to save himself, David believes he can save Tommie from a life of neglect and abject hopelessness by showing her beauty that exists beyond the city. The two strike up an odd friendship that wavers between a paternal relationship and, possibly, something more nefarious. It’s during one of these moments that Partridge and his music team select the perfect song: “Am I a Good Man,” a 1967 soul classic performed by Them Two, opens with the lyric, “Am I a good man? / Am I a fool?” and channels the audience’s exact thoughts. The duo embarks on a road trip from Chicago to David’s father’s cabin in Wyoming. There’s only one thing that David fails to do before they leave—get permission from Tommie’s mother.
At once naive and worldly, Tommie grasps that to anyone else their arrangement looks like a child abduction, and agrees to take precautions to dodge any misunderstandings. The cat-and-mouse game continues through America’s rolling fields and countryside, with David checking into motels with his “niece” and proving himself a master manipulator. He can explain away his questionable and illegal actions, and he tells Tommie she can always leave or go back at any time, yet talks her out of doing so when she shows signs of resistance or homesickness. Things get complicated at the farmhouse when Linny arrives unexpectedly to support David through the grieving process.
Because of the subject matter, it’s easy to compare Lamb to Nabokov’s Lolita, in which Humbert Humbert seduces the underage titular character. But Partridge’s film is darker and more uncomfortable, devoid of the comic undertones found in Nabokov’s novel. The mind games that David plays with himself, with Tommie, with Linny and with the audience are disturbing. David’s view of morality is seriously flawed, but to him, the end—saving Tommie from a miserable home life—justifies the means. Partridge, a veteran actor, does a commendable job in relaying the nuance and complexities of this unsavory, albeit well-intentioned character.
As a director, he creates suspense and stomach-lurching anticipation without busy onscreen action. Partridge unfolds Lamb unhurriedly and deliberately, allowing the “chemistry” between himself and Laurence to build. The young actress, best known for playing Jake Gyllenhaal’s daughter in Southpaw, proves she can handle the weight of this psychological drama; she portrays Tommie as a grown-up one minute and a child the next. Nathan M. Miller’s cinematography is breathtaking, his camera taking full advantage of the Wyoming landscape.
There are a couple missteps, such as the introduction of characters we never see again, squandering the talents of actors like Scoot McNairy and Joel Murray. Weixler’s Linny is underwritten: We’re left wondering what drives the character to stay with someone like David, who consistently lies to her. Without giving too much away, Linny’s reaction to meeting Tommie is puzzling. Still, these choices can be overlooked, since Partridge takes viewers on such a beautiful, confounding and unsettling ride.
Director: Ross Partridge
Writer: Ross Partridge, based on the novel by Bonnie Nadzam
Starring: Ross Partridge, Oona Laurence, Scoot McNairy, Jess Weixler, Lindsay Pulsipher, Joel Murray, Tom Bower, Jennifer Lafleur and Ron Burkhardt
Release Date: Opens in New York and Los Angeles on January 8, 2016; on VOD Jan. 12.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.