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(The end of the year catching up time continues here at Hammer to Nail with a long overdue review of Ross Partridge’s controversial yet engaging feature Lamb. The film made its premiere at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival and is opens in theaters and VOD in early January via The Orchard.)

The first thing you should know before watching Lamb is that it is about an inappropriate relationship between a 40-something man and an 11-year-old girl. Not sexual, but inappropriate. If this is an impossible barrier for you to overcome, then give the film a pass. You will be too frustrated by the actions of the protagonist to give the story the time it needs to win you over. But if you can manage your initial reaction to David Lamb’s behavior towards Tommie, the young object of his interest, you will find that the film – writer/director Ross Partridge’s second feature (his first was Interstate 84, 15 years ago) – more than rewards patient viewing, as it is a haunting and beautiful study of loneliness and depression with genuine surprises in store.

I, myself, had difficulties at first, as adults behaving badly around children is not something that I can sanction. Partridge, who also stars, and whose face may be familiar to audiences from other indie films like Baghead, is a good-looking man, but has an almost sadsack quality here that keeps us guessing what kind of person he may actually be. When first we meet him, he is visiting his sick father. Cut to a montage of Chicago cityscapes under the titles, and in the next scene he’s in a cemetery, having just buried that very same father. We also discover that he’s living in a motel, his wife or girlfriend having kicked him out. In short, he is a man in crisis.

And then he meets Tommie, a pre-pubescent girl whose friends put her up to asking the old guy for a cigarette. When we first see her, she’s all tiny, fragile bones in clothes far too old for her, walking across the parking lot to bum the butt. Instead of just accommodating her and then leaving her be, Lamb says he wants to teach her and her friends a lesson, shoving her in his car and taking off. How could she be so stupid, he asks? Isn’t she worried about a kidnapping? Well, what exactly is he doing, then,    if not kidnapping her? Except he’s not. He takes her home, gives her a stern warning, and drives away. The next day, though, they’re both back in the parking lot and, slowly, an unlikely – and troubling – friendship begins. She has a terrible home life, with a mother and stepdad who ignore her, and he has, well, no home life. He’s sleeping with a much younger woman at work, but even though she’s played by the luminous Jess Weixler (Teeth), for whatever reason he can’t quite commit.

Tommie is played by a vibrant relative newcomer,  Oona Laurence (Southpaw, and she is much stronger here than she was there), who brings to the part both innocence and world-weary savoir-faire. She likes the attention that Lamb gives to her – she gets none from her own family – but is wary of it, as she should be. This doesn’t stop her from giving in to his demands for more of her time, though. Because she is so small, and Partridge so much bigger, their scenes together, which grow in emotional intimacy, can be intense and disturbing. Perhaps, however, they’re both just looking for the love they desperately need, and nothing more. Because the film keeps us guessing, we continue to watch, simultaneously horrified and riveted.

Based on the 2011 debut novel of the same name by Bonnie Nadzam, Lamb provides needed respite from its powerful internal emotions with a road trip through gorgeous – and gorgeously filmed – rural landscapes. I haven’t read the source text, so I don’t know how these outdoor vistas affect the narrative there, but in the film they redeem David Lamb to some extent, as we believe him when he says that he wants to show Tommie more of “our beautiful country.” Whatever his ultimate motivations – if he even knows – Lamb truly believes that he wants only the best for Tommie. Whether you agree that their relationship is a good thing – or think the opposite, or are somewhere in between – you should find yourself mesmerized by the interactions of the two leads, whose rapport is one of the most genuine you will ever see on screen. Give the movie a chance – the intensity of its story notwithstanding – and enjoy witnessing the birth of a budding young star.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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