Bottom line: This daring indie has some queasy moments, but is a sincere, provocative duet.
The psychological drama “Lamb,” about a depressed, searching man and a lonely, impressionable girl — that’s girl, not teenager or woman — is a relationship movie that at times grips you with the fear that it’s the wrong kind of relationship you’re watching unfold. That it does so while offering a consistency of tone, and an abiding sympathy toward lost creatures and bad decisions, is something of a quietly humane achievement for its director and star, Ross Partridge, who adapted Bonnie Nadzam’s 2011 novel. Feeling creeped out is unavoidable, but it’s an inquisitive unsettling born of a faith that people are inherently complicated, worthy of love, capable of good and yet all too often mired in well-meaning intentions that hurt more than help.
Partridge plays David Lamb, a middle-aged Chicagoan in a state of flux, living in a motel room while his marriage disintegrates and his father dies. Even an affair with a co-worker (Jess Weixler) doesn’t seem to excite him much. Smoking alone by his SUV in a strip mall parking lot one day, he meets scrawny 11-year-old Tommie (Oona Laurence), whose request for a cigarette stirs in him a protectiveness. David takes her to her home and scolds her for being carelessly unsafe. Inside, Tommie’s layabout parents (Lindsay Pulsipher and Scoot McNairy) don’t even bother to get up from the couch or even look at her.
Such is the mutual sadness and abandonment that bring David and Tommie together as parking lot pals the next day, and the next, until David proffers a secret road trip away from the city to a piece of property out West that to him represents an idealized place of untamed beauty. David, on a mission to save Tommie from neglect and expose her to nature’s bounty — and obviously restore something in himself — acknowledges the risk, offering an “open door policy” about returning, and referring to them as “equals.” Tommie, seduced by the attention and kindness, accepts, although her face occasionally betrays a twist of concern.
This is where “Lamb” starts to feel like an uneasy swirl of “Lolita,” fairy tale and coming-of-age saga. As the story moves from motel rooms to the cabin — where the fault lines in David’s narcissistic “grooming” and an unexpected visitor begin to crack their rural idyll — Partridge, aware that he’s trafficking in taboos, deftly avoids cheaply exploitative suspense for the more gently disturbing tension of how a misguided, inappropriately manipulated friendship will play out.
Though it’s safe to say “Lamb” errs on the side of queasy asexual tenderness over open condemnation, the movie is nearly always astutely in the moment about its moral precipice and the emotional consequences. It helps that Partridge’s own performance is a careful balancing act between fracturing genuineness and ambiguity, while Laurence captures something beautifully knowing and heartbreaking about Tommie’s outwardly hardened, inwardly vulnerable state. She’s a real find.
The compulsively watchable oddness of “Lamb” and its commingling of innocence and peril keep it from easy categorization. That may not satisfy everybody, but it allows this daring indie to stand apart as a sincere, provocative duet.