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Director, screenwriter and star Ross Partridge unearths a ripe splintering of soul in the fragile, complex love story that is Lamb. Adapted from Bonnie Nadzam‘s sage but harrowing novel of redemption and temptation, Patridge repurposes the byzantine dynamic of Nadzam’s words to co-exist in the cinematic crossroads of nail-ruining suspense and earnest, didactic sentiments of humanity, all the while subtly wedging in thematic elements of Vladimir Nabokov’s will-they-or-won’t-they statutory misgivings.

David Lamb is a philandering mess of a man grieving from the recent loss of his father and reeling from freshly inked divorce papers. Holed up in a parking lot and looking out on the ugly urban sprawl of Chicago, an underage girl named Tommie – the unfortunate moniker of a girl whose parents clearly preferred offspring of the XY variety – approaches him with hopes of bumming a smoke. “I’m supposed to ask you for a cigarette,” Tommie shrugs. At Lamb’s behest, Tommie reveals that her older, recreant friends had put her up to the task. Rather than shoo her off – the conventional approach to set right the odd misguided youth asking for smokes or booze – Lamb extends a Parliament her way coyly. Sputtering off her first drag, Tommie is propositioned by the older gentleman. In a very nonchalant manner, Lamb suggests that she get in his Chevy Tahoe so her friends will think that she had been kidnapped. That’ll teach them a lesson. Without flinching, Tommie does.

Not one to worry about getting too literal with their metaphors, Partridge frames the eponymous Lamb as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. A predator preying upon the trust of an 11-year old, Lamb’s intentions are shapeshifting and piercingly hazy. On the one hand, Lamb seems like a man of good intent and could just be seizing the opportunity to shape the maturing innocence of a neglected child. In his own words, he just wants to show her something beautiful. On the other hand, ew. That sentence alone is enough to conjure up all the yucky sentiments of 45-on-11-year old action. We instinctually associate any relationship between a middle-aged male and a twig-framed girl with a very particular (read: vile) expectation. When he reaches out to brush hair out of her face, you cringe. Even if the gesture itself might be innocent. In Lamb‘s purgatory of good sense and bad taste, we never know exactly we should feel but that rarely stops us from feeling a whole damn lot.

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Such fogginess leads to an unnatural amount of dramatic unease, with sequences shifting from excruciatingly uncomfortable to genuinely touching on the dime of an arched eyebrow or a look that lingers just a moment too long. To capture such subtly is rare and Partridge as a director is able to pull off the nuanced feat over and over and over again. Actor Partridge is equally able. Already tasked with convincing Tommie of his earnest intent, Patridge also must persuade the audience, scene by scene, that he’s not a despicable scumbag of immeasurable stature. In moments of quiet reflection and tearful heartbreak, his performance soars.

Matching him tit-for-tat is pint-sized Tony winner Oona Laurence. Playing the role of a girl wise beyond her years that is nonetheless still very much a child, Laurence puts in one of the finest young performances of the decade as Tommie. She’s an adorable ball of astute, hopeful, trepidatious and naive qualities and her performance is so wholly impressive that none who take it in will likely be shocked to see her name up for awards consideration later this year.

Together, their chemistry is unlike anything else. Like old scrap metal that refuses to oxidize in the sun, the unwieldy relationship between the mismatched duo is incorrigible even when normative values demand otherwise. It’s touching and tragic to behold. As the pair escapes west, they slip through vast, green frames of Nathan M. Miller‘s sumptuous cinematography, perfectly-lit pastures that lend Patridge’s feature an organic sense of natural beauty, both in the untouched landscape and in Lamb’s unadulterated, adolescent compatriot. Like the characters on screen, you want to reach out and touch it but you know you can’t.

Says Partridge, “Lamb attempts to suspend and challenge our preconceived beliefs of right and wrong, raising the question, “If we could all reset and correct the ills of our past, if given a chance, would we not like to make one lasting imprint before we die?” One way or another, the character of Lamb has impressed on Tommie a whole new world-view by the curtain time, be that for better or worse. Both a rewarding challenge and a sizable victory, Lamb is a film that’ll you want to chew on to make sure you get all the flavorful nuance out. A soulful triumph of avant garde filmmaking and a significant achievement of character and spirit, Lamb is a thought-provoking main affair not to be missed.

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