Lamb: Can a Man and an 11-Year-Old Girl Really Be Friends?

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Lamb
Directed by Ross Partridge
Opens January 8

Montaigne says not to look for friendship between relatives, and it’s best to skip his thoughts on friendships between men and women. That “correspondence of manners, parts, and inclinations, which begets the true and perfect friendships” he describes is as difficult to find as to explain; it’s founded not on childlike naiveté but in an ineffable childhood clarity: an instinct that feels like the truth.

Can the relationship between 47-year-old David Lamb, and Tommie—an 11-year-old girl—properly be called a friendship?

It closely resembles one of those needy, intense connections formed at the edge of childhood, in the face of a looming, unfamiliar world. Although David is divorcing his wife, and has been caring for his profoundly unpaternal father (who has just died), in one fundamental way, he’s still a kid: he lies constantly, committedly, spontaneously. In trouble at work over an affair with a younger colleague (Jess Weixler, in a toothless role), he won’t commit to her; he’s got one foot on the playground and the other in a lonely, sad senescence—until, in too-big heels, in a Chicago parking lot, comes his chance to play an adult. Neglected, awkward, obviously intelligent, Tommie ambles over to ask for a cigarette, and David does the dad thing—he gives her the cigarette, then makes her smoke it. Yes, it’s gross! Then he fakes a kidnapping, or enacts one, driving the girl home and admonishing her never to do anything like that again. But the two keep meeting, and when David decides to drive to his family cabin, out west, he takes Tommie with him, intent on giving her a gift—horses, mountains, lake, a vision of pure country—that will sustain her.

Adapted from Bonnie Nadzam’s 2011 novel, Lamb aims neither to update Lolita nor to offer a father-daughter Mud; it’s a kind of vehicle for its writer-director-star, Ross Partridge, whose David is likeable, good-looking, deceptively reassuring. But it succeeds as a showcase for Oona Laurence as Tommie, whose future on screen and stage is the real gift to await. She knows David as Gary, but she also knows, sometimes, when he’s full of shit. That’s more often than the movie thinks; dialogue that’s meant to be elevated and insightful—“You will be an apple tree among all the ash-colored buildings of this concrete city”—sounds a little silly, but this works, in the end, for Lamb’s benefit. David needs to tell himself a story. And he needs to tell himself, too, that Tommie’s story will be made better by the chapter he has written for her. This may be true, but it isn’t all the truth. Soon Tommie will be grown enough to know the difference between a fabulist and a liar.

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