A dangerously unclassifiable relationship between two lost and lonely individuals is the focus of “Lamb,” writer-director-star Ross Partridge’s beautiful and troubling sophomore feature. In adapting Bonnie Nadzam’s novel about a middle-aged man who befriends a young girl and coaxes her into joining him for a week at his rural hideaway, Partridge navigates risky material with assurance, delicacy and a deepening sense of intimacy that can turn, without warning, into complicity: The more at ease we feel in the characters’ company, the more disturbingly questionable the situation becomes. Superbly shot and movingly acted, especially by young Oona Laurence, this arthouse-ready item should prove a potent conversation-starter at festivals, where even naysayers may be hard pressed to deny the film’s cumulative emotional impact.
A mantle of sadness hangs over the tale’s two protagonists before they’re brought together, in improbable yet utterly plausible fashion. Having recently lost his father (a briefly seen Ron Burkhardt) and about to witness the end of his marriage, 47-year-old David Lamb (Partridge) is hanging out one afternoon in a parking lot in a particularly depressed-looking corner of Chicago. There, he’s approached by Tommie (Laurence), an 11-year-old girl who toddles over in high heels and asks him for a cigarette. He in turn suggests they feign a kidnapping so as to play a trick on the “friends” who dared her to approach him, and before she can respond, he grabs her by the arm and pushes her into his SUV. Dropping Tommie off a few miles away at her apartment building, David scolds her for putting herself in such a situation. “You should know better,” he tells her. “I’m not a bad guy, but I could’ve been.”
It’s a statement that lingers meaningfully over everything that follows. We’ve already seen enough of David’s interactions with others to intuit that he’s a fundamentally decent if seriously flawed guy. But his initial round of make-believe with Tommie — it’s just a game, we’re not hurting anyone — serves as a queasy-making template for the much more daring deception to come. As David hangs out with Tommie over the next few days, learning of her neglect by her mother (Lindsay Pulsipher) and her mother’s boyfriend (Scoot McNairy), the girl’s unhappiness strikes a faint echo of his own. Before long David invites her to join him on a trip out west to his countryside cabin, just for a few days.
Eager to escape her humdrum existence and see something of the outside world, Tommie says yes with little hesitation, initiating a roughly week-long retreat into the wilderness (scenically lensed in Wyoming). The open road ends at a remote, Edenic destination where David and Tommie wile away a few days resting on the banks of a river, cooking fish over a fire, and watching horses roaming an open field. But the unspoiled glory of their new surroundings — reinforced by d.p. Nathan M. Miller’s crystalline images and Daniel Belardinelli’s gently piercing score — never quite dispels the sense that we’re seeing a beautiful lie, and a fleeting one. Even before David’s girlfriend (Jess Weixler) stops by for a surprise visit, forcing an abrupt change of plans, we sense that the characters can outrun themselves and their past wounds for only so long.
Over the course of their adventure, the two openly discuss, negotiate and attempt to define the parameters of their relationship — a tricky task, insofar as David, depending on the occasion, is capable of treating Tommie as an equal, an underling and (worst of all) a liability. Nadzam’s novel derived its tension from the reader’s uncertainty about what this dishonest, manipulative guy might do to his young charge, and some may argue that Partridge’s adaptation offers a textbook example of predatory pedophile behavior — a latter-day “Lolita” with any actual instances of child abuse carefully excised. But it’s a reading that the film, with its balanced dual perspective and its clear-eyed regard for both parties, doesn’t ultimately support, and indeed seeks to pre-empt. There are moments here that seem designed to set off warning bells — as when David and Tommie share a motel room, or when he tells her to take a bath — so that the film can swiftly and decisively allay our worst fears.
Laurence is a major find, an expressive child actress who seems preternaturally intelligent and perceptive even in her naivete. For his part, Partridge (who made his directing debut with 2000’s “Interstate 84”) gives a performance that’s as crucial to shaping the story as his writing and direction; sly and ingratiating, the actor invests Lamb with the sort of rascally charm that makes it all too clear how starved Tommie is for fatherly attention. Instinctively we find ourselves trusting David, or at least convinced that his behavior is misguided but not malicious, even when he reveals himself to be not just a spinner of tall tales but a compulsive liar to boot. For all its ambiguity, the film makes no mistake about identifying and dismantling every one of David’s own self-serving delusions, including his belief that he’s rescuing Tommie from a life of abandonment. He, too, is not above neglecting her when it suits him.
Sporting a title that can be read two ways, “Lamb” is ultimately a cautious, sensitive, admirably unresolved attempt to dramatize a relationship for which society makes no allowance and offers no definition. That the characters’ connection should be morally rejected doesn’t entirely account for the bittersweet resonance of their final encounter — one that you watch with a sense of relief that their time together has come to an end, but also a strange and equally undeniable gratitude that they had it to begin with.