“Tadpole” is a smart sex comedy that successfully swims upstream to spawn and score. A sort of pre-“Graduate” set in Whit Stilman territory in contempo New York, this winning and sometimes hilarious tale of misdirected love and lust centers on a teenage central character who becomes not a frog but a true prince of the city. A real audience pleaser that looks assured of rapid acquisition and a good future in broad specialized release, this InDiGent production is potentially limited only by its very brief running time and very substandard digital video look.
Upscale and highly literate farce marks a breezy change of pace for director Gary Winick in his sixth feature, one distinguished by some very fine character writing by Heather McGowan and Niels Mueller, finely judged comedy timing and expert playing by a first-rate cast. Shining at the center of it all is newcomer Aaron Stanford as one of the most precocious — and certainly the brightest and most articulate –15-year-olds the recent American screen has produced in this age of adolescent cretins and horny toads.
To be sure, Oscar Grubman (Stanford) is obsessed with the opposite sex, although he’s not interested in girls his own age, or even women in general. Nay, Oscar is singlemindedly fixated on his stepmother Eve (Sigourney Weaver), a fortysomething beauty who married his dad Stanley (John Ritter) when his mother decamped and moved back to France.
Neatly contained to a Thanksgiving weekend visit by Oscar from his upstate prep school to his father’s elegant Manhattan apartment, story makes shrewd use of numerous elements of classical French farce, a debt acknowledged by making Oscar such a Francophile that he is immersed in Voltaire and insists upon ordering for entire party in French at a restaurant. One of the film’s crucial accomplishments, in fact, is setting Oscar so decisively apart from most teens as a bright intellectual with no interest in pop culture or “regular stuff,” but never allowing him to become an off-putting snob.
Oscar’s main problem, as he sees it, is his “high expectations,” chief among them his desire to let Eve know how he feels and then somehow do something about it. At Thanksgiving dinner, at which antiquities professor Stanley feels the need to apologize to Native Americans before sitting down to table, Oscar drifts about trying to engage Eve’s attention, but later drunkenly ends up in the apartment of Eve’s best friend, worldly wise chiropractor Diane (Bebe Neuwirth), who works wonders on Oscar on the massage bench and later in the sack.
Startled to realize the next morning what has happened, Oscar is nonetheless encouraged by Diane’s disclosure that there is a “void” in Eve’s life, one that he imagines he can fill. After Oscar is hit upon by Diane’s circle of lady friends and he ignores persistent interest by girls in his class, all the accumulating tensions are squeezed to the breaking point in a brilliantly realized restaurant dinner scene involving Oscar, who is desperate that Diane not divulge to Eve what happened between them; Diane, who after a few glasses of wine starts not to give a damn; Stanley, who thinks his son spent the previous night with a cute young classmate who also happens to be in the restaurant; and Eve, whose secret passion for late-era Elvis has prompted Oscar to wear fake sideburns for the evening.
But in the wake of its comic high, pic manages to settle down to the inevitable climactic scene between Oscar and Eve, which is delicately handled in the writing and playing to satisfying and properly understated results.
Scripters clearly knew precisely what they wanted and attempted neither too little nor too much, keeping the comic narrative line moving swiftly while rendering just the right amount of character detail. Director Winick’s work is entirely complementary in its deft sense of pacing and ability to make behavioral and social points with very quick brush strokes. Film’s 78-minute running time is just right for the story being told, but nonetheless remains a bit short for what is usually expected in a theatrical context.
Stanford, who is actually in his early 20s, assumes Oscar’s uncommonly intelligent, well-spoken and mature airs with utter ease and credibility and he creates one of the most distinctive young screen characters in recent memory. Neuwirth sets off many of the early sparks that firmly places the picture on its high comic trajectory; Weaver is the perfect dream stepmom; Ritter very amusingly conveys Dad’s professorial fatuousness; and Adam Lefevre, as Diane’s over-friendly boyfriend, and Robert Iler, as Oscar’s school chum, make the most of their moments.
Pic’s biggest flaw lies in its visuals. At least in the print shown at Sundance, many scenes displayed annoying evidence of the digital shoot, from grain, flared lights and inconsistent color to generally uneven picture quality. One can only hope the problem rests with the transfer and not in the images themselves, as many digitally shot features have shown much better results when transferred to film. For theatrical release, as much work as possible should be done to bring the visuals up to normal pro standards.