When you read that Ross Partridge’s remarkable film “Lamb” is about a 47-year-old man who meets an 11-year-old girl and decides to take her on an impromptu road trip, you figure that the title is a reference to the girl caught in a typical predator-prey dynamic with her captor. But when you find that the man’s name is, in fact, David Lamb (played by Partridge), your preconceptions about their relationship start to disassemble. It soon becomes apparent that David is motivated not by pedophilia or some other sinister intention, but by something much more idealistic and ultimately tragic. Based on the book by Bonnie Nadzam, Partridge’s character study is unlike any I’ve seen—spiked with endlessly provocative layers of tenderness, unease, manipulation and shared feeling. There are occasional shades of “Paper Moon” in David’s scenes with the girl, Tommie, played by Oona Laurence in what is surely one of the greatest child performances in cinema history, ranking right alongside Patty Duke in “The Miracle Worker” and Henry Thomas in “E.T.” She is a complete marvel, and so is the movie.
Mainstream moviegoers may recognize Partridge and Laurence from their respective roles in “Stranger Things” and “Pete’s Dragon.” Another key collaborator on “Lamb” is Partridge’s wife, Jennifer Lafleur, a marvelous performer in her own right, who served as co-producer on the film (she also makes a cameo). Partridge spoke with Indie Outlook about the timeliness of David’s predicament, the words of wisdom he received from Oona’s father and the benefits (and drawbacks) of shooting in Wyoming.
What was it about the subject matter in Bonnie’s book that spoke to you?
I think it was just the despair of these characters and where they’re at in their lives. They may be different ages, but they both are in search of love. The alienation that they feel is causing them to drift from society, and their bond just kind of spoke to me. It felt to me like a love story, as hard as it was to grapple with, and I had never seen one that was so unconventional. Both people were affected by their upbringing with an absent father figure, and it has caused them to feel lost. Having two characters come together in this way usually has much more negative connotations. There’s such an innocence about them, but there’s also a moral dilemma. We expect an older person to make rational judgments, and the story challenged me to empathize with David Lamb. If I judge him morally from my experience, then there’s no question that what he’s doing is totally wrong and f—ked up. But if I take a step back and acknowledge that my experiences are different from his, then I can extend my empathy to that character.
You mentioned in the film’s audio commentary that David feels the need to revert back to his youth, using phrases that his grandfather used to say like, “Turn down the bed.”
That aspect of him was so well portrayed by Bonnie’s novel and there’s a lot of backstory in the novel that obviously couldn’t make it onto the screen. Bonnie and I talked a bunch about the scene where David puts the penny on Tommie’s forehead, and says that the age of the penny matches his own, when in actuality, he’s aging himself by fifteen years. He truly believed that he was much older, and that reflects the depths of his psychological damage. He felt he was of an older generation, and that he was living during an era where he didn’t belong. The music that he grew up listening to was from his grandparents’ generation, and he loved it so much that it became his anthem. He was picking up on part of an environment that seemed like a better life, something that was more of a dream state for him, where he could harken back to a moment of innocence—perhaps with his grandparents—where everything seemed okay.
In many ways, David is a timelier character than ever, since Americans have become so drawn to nostalgia, as evidenced by the popularity of shows like “Stranger Things.”
I totally agree. We have all these abilities to communicate better as a society, utilizing things like social media, but if you look at what’s going on in the world, you realize that our feeling of disconnect has only grown larger. We feel like we can touch the world, but we’re somehow feeling more alienated because of it. Our sense of empathy towards one another is in question all the time. When we turn on the news, there’s so much anger and hate in the discourse, whether it’s between red and blue states or between different countries. We are immediately judging one another without bothering to understand how our actions are dictated by our own experiences. David feels like he doesn’t have anything, and when he looks at the innocence of this child, it gives him some sort of hope. What he’s feeling isn’t rational or intellectual, it’s purely emotional. People might think that David’s attraction to Tommie is sexual, and that’s not what it is at all. He’s trying to figure out how to be a better person, and she’s the tool to get him there. She makes him feel like he has some worth and is finally doing something right.
Behind every great child actor is a great director, so I must ask how you forged your relationship with Oona.
Oona is such a special actress. I remember when we wrapped filming, I said, “This is the best actor I’ve ever worked with.” Her presence alone has such a magic about it. We did a normal sort of preparation for the shoot. I flew to New York, found a rehearsal space and spent a week-and-a-half with Oona and her dad. The conversations that we had together helped us build our trust with one another and establish our relationship. Her parents were really incredible too, and they were the reason why she made the film. Obviously, they read all her material first. Oona was originally not going to be able to make our audition. Her father had read the synopsis and was like, “Eh, I don’t know this.” At the same time, one of Oona’s sisters, who was 5 at the time, was working on a show in Chicago, and her mother was there with her. Both of Oona’s sisters are great actors themselves. Anyway, Oona’s mother got ahold of the script for “Lamb,” read it and started weeping. She then called up her husband and said, “You have to get Oona to this audition. She’s got to play this part.” So it was a whole family affair.
Her ability to understand things at such a young age is just exceptional. When we were in the rehearsal process, she was all instinct and completely natural. She’s extremely bright, but she doesn’t overthink things. We’d go over the scene together, but her questions were already pretty well-answered in her amazing mind, so we were focused mainly on getting to know one another and being comfortable together. Once we got there, we were able to just fire away. There were obviously many moments in the film that we had to bracket to see where our characters were emotionally, while giving ourselves a lot of options for the edit. She was always willing to go in any direction, and she can take direction well, so it was an easy process. There were a lot of times I was both directing and acting, while Jen and my other producer were my eyes and ears in terms of performance. I’d be in the car and suddenly remember that I had forgotten to memorize my lines, so I’d turn to Oona and ask, “What am I supposed to say?” And she’d tell me. [laughs] She’d know both sides of the conversation, so I deferred to her a lot. We eventually got to a point where we’d have the sort of conversations that adult actors would usually have. I’d tell her, “I don’t know if that last take felt right,” and then she’d start giving me direction too. I can’t say enough about Oona’s brilliance, and obviously she is going on to do so many great things.
This was a rather fitting role for Oona to have after starring in “Matilda” on Broadway, where she also played an exceptionally smart young misfit with oblivious, TV-addicted parents.
You know that old adage about how kids don’t miss a trick? I think that’s true, and it’s one of the things that I learned from working with Oona. I’d try to talk to her in a way where I’d break things down a little more simply for her, but quickly realize that I didn’t need to. She’d look at me with one eyebrow raised, and go, “You mean this? I get it!” [laughs]
I imagine there was a lot of discussion regarding how to portray the more disturbing aspects of this relationship without losing the audience in the process.
The hardest scene in the movie was when David has to put Tommie in the bathtub. I had to put Oona through that emotional ride, and we talked a lot about it. It was all done in one take that tracks through the motel room and into the bathroom. We did the take three times, and Oona was just so spot-on. Having to see a young kid cry like that will break your heart, and everyone were really affected. I just couldn’t believe what she was bringing to the scene, but at the same time, I got this sinking feeling and was like, “F—k, I think I’ve shot myself in the foot. We need this scene, but I just don’t know how an audience is going to be able to recover from it.” I went outside to take a walk and Oona’s dad came up to me. We had become really close by that point, and he asked me what was wrong. I was like, “I think I just tanked the movie if I keep this. Putting a kid through that and making these mistakes and being that aggressive toward a child will be very tough for the audience to take.”
He just calmly replied to me, “Look, I’ve been a parent for a really long while and there are times where I don’t know what I’m doing. I get out of control and yell and scream and get frustrated. There is room for error in how people behave and what they do, and that’s the whole point of this film. I’ve done things that I’m not proud of just by being a parent because it is a really hard task. David is taking on parenting and he has no idea what to do. We all get that feeling every once in a while.” Though his words didn’t make me feel like David was off the hook, it diffused the situation in a way that was really important. It gave me just enough clarity to be able to move on. It was great to have people around me who believed in the story just as much that I could check back in with to make sure it was all okay.
The concern that you conveyed in that scene caused me to feel torn as a viewer. On one hand, the situation is very upsetting, while at the same time, you understand David’s intentions.
That’s pretty much the essence of the movie right there. The book goes into a darker, deeper psychological place. There were scenes in the book, even that one in particular, that you just couldn’t replicate on film—it would be too long, too psychologically layered and too damaged. In the book, Bonnie wrote a beautiful moment where David sings a lullaby to Tommie that somebody used to sing to him when he was a kid. It takes him back to a moment in time where he was a child experiencing the simplicity and safety of being in a bathtub and playing around in the water. I think I actually included that in the script, but when we shot the scene, I discovered that there was no way we could get to that moment. The scene was just too intense. In some ways, the scene is even more tragic in the book because it shows just how misguided his efforts are to care for her.
The cinematography by Nathan M. Miller is so skilled at showing how David and Tommie’s relationship is all a matter of perspective. What looks natural from one angle will look unusual from another. I loved the shot where both characters are relaxing near a river in the foreground, while the silhouette of an onlooker emerges from the background. You could argue that the entire movie is encapsulated in that shot.
You’re so good! The book itself was so cinematic in how it made you feel the presence of the outside world coming in and getting closer and closer. In fact, there was a point at which Bonnie was editing her manuscript for the book and she was getting notes from people saying, “I think we need to see what’s happening in the outside world. We need to know what’s going on at Tommie’s home, with the police and the reality of the situation.” Bonnie had a hard time with those notes because she truly believed that once the main characters were together, the whole world disappeared and the reader had no choice but to follow them on their journey. All of a sudden, the world comes back into play and it’s pressing in on their fantasy until they realize they have to go back because, in the end, the world obviously wins, right? In the book, Bonnie phrases it like, “Well, I guess this is the point at which we should probably talk about what’s happening at home.” [laughs] That’s how much she didn’t want to do it, but the pressure from the publishers forced her hand, so she cleverly decided to write it in a completely different voice.
We were very conscientious of the fact that we didn’t want any of those passages in the movie. It just didn’t make sense. I didn’t want to cut to the cops in the middle of this beautiful, poetic world—basking in the lyricism of it before bringing the audience back into a schmaltzy TV world where cops are undergoing their investigation. It just didn’t seem to fit. Nathan and I wanted to be very subtle in how we showed the world coming closer and closer to the characters. For the river scene, our staging of it was largely determined by the constraints of the location. We wanted the figure of the onlooker to appear as if he came out of nowhere. The characters are lost in their own world when this presence suddenly jumps at them, and they’re thrown off guard by this confrontation with the outside world. I talked with Nathan about what lies at the other side of David’s journey. There’s a beautiful world out there that he is aware of and can appreciate, and we wanted it to serve as an antithesis to what was going on in David’s mind. The audience needed some sort of reprieve, and they had to feel that this journey was worth taking. Otherwise, it would’ve been completely bleak. We shot in Wyoming and that was where the story naturally took place. I just fell in love with what I was seeing in that state, and the location that we got was such a stroke of luck. We saw a lot of cabins when we were scouting, but the one that we chose was exactly what the book had described. When you get to experience that type of beauty, you’re constantly figuring out the best way to frame it.
There are all these picturesque moments, but the bug-infested skies make it impossible for David and Tommie to linger in them, which is emblematic of their relationship.
There was a lovely rancher that we met who asked us, “You guys are shooting when?”, and I responded, “June.” He looked at me and said, “You don’t want to be here in June. You’re gonna be eaten alive. The mosquitoes are so bad that you won’t even want to be outside.” Since we were a bunch of people from LA, we figured that we’d put some DEET on and we’d be fine. Boy were we wrong. There was one particular shot that we couldn’t even get because the bugs were so bad. I’ll never forget filming the scene at the fencepost. We would do Oona’s side of the coverage really fast, and we’d have three people waving big pillows in front of her to create enough wind to repel the bugs. We couldn’t afford fans, and we didn’t want it to look like we using fans either, so it worked out fine. Then we rushed to do my coverage. Not only were we battling against time before the sun went down, we were also battling the mosquitoes. That entire scene had to be shot in literally fifteen minutes.
When David tells his girlfriend (Jess Weixler) about how the grounds are haunted by the ghost of a young girl, we initially start to wonder whether Tommie was a figment of his imagination, until she literally wakes him back into reality. It’s a great example of how David can lose himself—and the audience—in his delusions.
I know many people who have been damaged in life. I have unfortunately been around a lot of alcoholics, and I’ve seen how they weave elaborate tales in order to adapt to their environment. I had a brother who passed away from drinking too much. He was a master storyteller, and he would come up with these scenarios that would leave me stunned. I couldn’t believe how he could tell these stories as if he really believed them—and on the fly. Alcoholics will say anything just to get out of a situation that’s too tricky, and that’s pretty much what David does here. He tells lies in order to survive.
Last of all, I must ask what it’s been like collaborating with your significant other, Jennifer, in various projects over the past decade, from “Baghead,” “The Midnight Swim” and “Wedlock” to the upcoming “6 Dynamic Laws for Success in Life, Love & Money.”
It’s funny because if you asked her, she’d be like, “We don’t really work together that much.” [laughs] She’s such an asset to have on any set. She is so smart and I know she’s my wife, so I may be biased, but I don’t believe that’s the case. She’s one of the best actors I know, and when we collaborate, I’m always bouncing ideas off of her. I’m such a better writer because of her. She has a big bulls—t meter for weeding out things that don’t feel true and don’t feel right when you’re reading it. We’re both in a position where we’re scrambling to get work and people will look at us and think, ‘If we get Jen, maybe Ross might available,’ or vice versa. Independent films are not cast in the normal sort of process. They’re not putting out a wide net. Instead, they’re like, “Hey, is your friend available to come work for nothing?” [laughs] That’s how it all goes down, and we’ve gotten lucky in doing some of that. Sometimes it doesn’t work out too well as far as the quality of what we’re doing, but we’re constantly searching for new stuff and are excited by first-time filmmakers. Being a filmmaker myself, I’m always trying to find work that I believe in, and I’ve built some great relationships because of it.
“Lamb” is available on DVD and Amazon Video.