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A Trip No Young Person Should Take In 'Lamb'

Oona Laurence and Ross Partridge in a scene from Lamb. Nathan Miller/Courtesy of The Orchard hide caption

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Nathan Miller/Courtesy of The Orchard

Oona Laurence and Ross Partridge in a scene from Lamb.

Nathan Miller/Courtesy of The Orchard

In an early scene in the deeply unsettling Lamb, protagonist Daniel Lamb phones a co-worker he's been having an affair with. "My wife is downstairs," he whispers. Not true—he's calling from a motel, where his wife has presumably banished him. "I'm lying here naked," he then purrs. Not true, either. Daniel has a propensity for fashioning his own truth out of whole cloth, which is not a quality likely to endear him to anyone. And after encountering a precocious adolescent girl in a parking lot, he pushes himself permanently out of the realm of sympathy.

Daniel, whose father has recently died, is played by Ross Partridge (Baghead). His clean-cut looks and 40-something midlife-crisis demeanor are insidious enough to mask the danger this character poses — a danger he may not even be able to detect in himself. Partridge also wrote and directed Lamb, adapting the novel by Bonnie Nadzam, and exhibits great patience and control over his story, giving us a portrait of a troubling relationship that almost never clues us into what the guy in control is thinking. Instead, driving against a quiet backdrop of country roads, a strange girl in tow, the unlovable hero seems to silently attempt to exorcise ... something from his consciousness.

The girl, an 11-year-old named Tommie (a magnetic Oona Laurence), first appears with a big pink purse and a pink tank top, swaying above her inappropriately high heels. She tries to bum a cigarette off Daniel, and their relationship doesn't exactly start off promising when he suggests they scare her friends by staging a pretend kidnapping. Perhaps sensing she comes from a broken home, Daniel returns to visit her and quickly develops a bond, showering her with attention and advice, talking to her as an equal.

But soon Daniel has coerced his lamb into joining him on a road trip to his country cabin, a Lolita-like development in which he nevertheless takes strenuous care to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Even in the thick of Daniel's deception and psychological manipulation, he still makes a show of everything being Tommie's decision, as though she has the requisite maturity to make a judgment call: "This will look a lot like a kidnapping to other people," he cautions her. Ya think, buddy?

Partridge never spells out exactly what Daniel wants out of Tommie, which is what lends the film its under-the-skin menace. Sometimes he pretends to be her uncle, sometimes her father, and once, in a particularly disturbing passage, her younger brother. What's most important to him is creating some kind of shared fantasy on the decaying foundation of his father's house, a fantasy that he seems to perceive as innocent (he insists on standing outside their shared motel room while she changes). Tommie begins to feel sick midway through their time together, a physical expression of a mental discomfort she can't find the words to articulate. Laurence's face projects intensity, registering her character's growing sense of awakening: her eager overtures toward adulthood clashing with a heartbreakingly naive trust in the nearest adult. The film shifts from Daniel's to Tommie's point of view in a remarkably subtle fashion, altering the makeup of the story and the ways we're forced to wrestle with it.

Never work with children or animals, the Hollywood saying goes. But there is no easier shortcut to generating concern in cinema than by putting children in peril. Just look at likely Oscar contender Room, which leaned heavily (probably too heavily) on the innocent, cherubic eyes of its fairy-tale-spinning child star in order to tell the all-too-real horror story of his mother's abduction and sexual slavery. There's always a danger that these kinds of stories, which demand we focus so much of our energy on a youth's safety, will reveal themselves as cloying and cheap. But Lamb uses real skill to draw our gasps early from only vague character sketches, and keeps us in bated breath throughout. We wonder what is in store for this girl and whether—as she frolics through wide-open fields—she will have the wisdom to realize she shouldn't be with this man.

More than Room, Lamb calls to mind two of last year's best films, The Diary Of A Teenage Girl and The Kindergarten Teacher. Both follow similarly precocious young characters as they develop wildly inappropriate relationships with the adults in their lives: the former sexual, the latter something far stranger. Lamb is the weakest of the three: Its edges are rough and amateurish, its dialogue clunky, and its late passages credibility-straining, particularly once Daniel's romantic interest (Jess Weixler) arrives on the scene. But all three films find fascinating ways to provoke, to dare us to stare them down. They march their fresh-faced waifs toward unconscionable destinations, until we feel just about ready to swear off adulthood for good.