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There has been some buzz about a film released last year called Lamb (2015). There were two films that year with that title, so this is not the one about the Ethiopian boy! This film covers the challenging subject of the relationship between an 11-year-old girl and a 47-year-old man. Watching it for the first time is suspenseful, because one does not know what to expect. After all, can American cinema tell this kind of story convincingly without resorting to cliché?
The film is based on a novel of the same name by Bonnie Nadzam. This seems a very personal project for Ross Partridge who wrote the screenplay and played the lead, David Lamb. In the beginning, he is staying at a motel having been kicked out of the house by his wife. He is caring for his father who is chair-bound and dies early on in the story. We also learn that he has been having an affair with a woman named Linny, who seems to be crazy about him despite his many faults. His biggest fault is that he is a chronic liar and uses the lies to avoid facing the pain of the real world. Meanwhile, the girl Tommie (Oona Laurence) is shown altering her clothes, making herself more revealing to fit in with her friends.
Having just buried his father, David is sitting and smoking at a cemetery across the street from where Tommie and her friends are. On a dare, she comes up to him to ask for a cigarette. He gives her one but, in one of his many paternal impulses, makes her take a puff right there.
She coughs from the smoke—symbolic of her virginity—and confesses that her friends put her up to it. He tells her his name is Gary, his first lie. He warns her how dangerous it is to approach a strange man like this alone. He hastily persuades her to pretend he is abducting her to teach her friends a lesson and make them worry what they might have done to her. He puts her in his blazer and drives off.
This throws her off, but she plays along. He tells her that, “Even though I’m not a bad guy, I could have been.” He takes her home, but does not meet her parents. Her mother and her boyfriend work long hours and do nothing but sit in front of the television when they are at home, barely acknowledging Tommie’s existence.
David is told to take some time off work until things settle down. He returns to the cemetery and finds Tommie there. She explains that her friends didn’t even care that she was gone. Suddenly, David is the only person in her life paying any attention to her. To apologize for his abrupt prank, he offers to take her to lunch. They enjoy each other’s company and, in an awkward moment, Tommie asks if David would like her email. For a moment, David is taken aback and warns her that their spending time together will look strange to other people. Nonetheless, it seems a friendship is budding between these two lonely people.
Tommie is shown shaving her legs, indicating she treats this as a serious grown-up relationship.
David explains that he was planning a trip to his father’s cabin and that Tommie is welcome to join him. There are many clues that this girl has an unhappy life with no meaningful friendships and he gets the idea of giving her a whirlwind trip of beautiful memories she can look back on—staying in a rustic cabin with mountains, streams and horses. She closes her eyes and tries to imagine it.
He wants to assures her that they are partners in this adventure and that she take some time to consider if she really wants to go with him. Any time she wants to quit, he promises to turn around or put her on a plane home. The trip starts out pleasant enough. There is a scene with Tommie sucking on one of those candy rings. When it is in her mouth, it looks like a baby’s pacifier, but on her hand, it is a ring suggestive of a committed relationship.
Throughout the trip, David reminds Tommie of the terms of their partnership. She seems to understand the need for a certain amount of deceit to maintain appearances and calls herself Emily when around strangers. Although they share a motel room, David stays outside when she is cleaning up and dressing, going out of his way to show her that he respects her privacy.
As the trip progresses, Tommie gets a little homesick; she is getting further and further from home, and yet she does not want to go back. A woman notices her and asks if she can help. David hastily interrupts, telling her that his “daughter” is just car sick.
On occasion, David’s parental impulses kick in and the contract between them is broken followed with retorts that he is treating her like a child. The first incident happens when he offers her coffee and she jostles his arm, spilling scalding liquid on her. In a panic, he rushes her to the bathroom so she can wash and cool off in the shower. She screams pitifully for him to leave her alone, but he persists until she hands him her soiled shirt to be cleaned; all the while the shower curtain is placed carefully between them.
Finally, they arrive and Tommie has the bunk room for all to herself along with a few gifts that are waiting for her.
While playing in the stream, an old man comes up to them. This time David pretends to be the girl’s uncle and “Emily” just needs some time away after her mother’s untimely death.
There is another scene of bonding when they dance together before their next run-in with the old man.
David asks Tommie to go to the shack—where the refrigerator is—to get him a beer and says she may have a sip. Right when she takes a sip, the old man walks in. Suddenly, David has to cover for this and rushes her away, scolding her in a phony parental rage. The old man seems to accept the explanation.
Tommie complains that she still has not seen any horses. To satisfy her request, the two of them sneak over to a neighbor’s property. Tommie is delighted even though the horses are a bit scraggly.
For the most part, David does his best to make the stay as pleasurable as possible. But tension is brought to a head when Linny makes a surprise visit to console him; they used to go to the cabin together and so she knows the way. As the car pulls up, Tommie is whisked away to hide and told that staying hidden will be her greatest challenge so far. David does not seem to be putting any pressure on Linny to leave and after one day, Tommie observes them making love. This sight makes her nauseous and she runs into the field to be sick.
She finally decides to force the issue and appears in the room where the two of them are sleeping, startling the woman. David has to rush to explain things—this is the first time Tommie learns his real name. Linny is upset despite his explanation and drives off.
Although Tommie’s feelings about David are clear, his feeling for her are not. He seems to be driven by guilt over his own brother’s disappearance at age 12 and that the boy never got to experience the beauty of life. Along the border fence, he pounds in a commemorative post telling Tommie that this is meant to symbolize his special love for her and that she should remember it as her post. He tells her that he is going to will the cabin to her so that when he is gone, she can go there and make it her own—remembering this special week together.
David reminds Tommie that once the week has passed, he will return her home and she will pretend that she simply ran away. She does not want to go back. After her shower one night, she finds David very distraught at the idea that Tommie might one day look back at their time together with contempt. She assures him that that would never happen.
Finally, they arrive in town and, despite their agreement, Tommie does not want to leave. Upset, she explains that maybe they can make people understand their love. David tells her, “Love like ours is expensive.” In order to protect it, they must pay the price of not seeing each other. He made a few vague reference to the possibility of future meetings—that she would know he was there by some secret signal.
They embrace one last time and Tommie gets out of the car. As he pulls away, she calls for him to wait and begins running after him as he drives away.
David may not have misused Tommie in the conventional sense, but he did use her to exorcise his own demons about his poor brother’s abrupt life. He only saw Tommie as a kind of messenger of the dead and, through her, tried to create the kind of beautiful experience his brother deserved. In the mean time, he allowed a girl to fall deeply in love with him—an illusion that must someday end. Are we to believe he really intended to will the cabin to her? Was his declaration of love mere words or just another lie? David really did have reason to fear that Tommie would one day hate him, because in allowing her the fantasy of love, he also created the inevitable reality of heartbreak.
I admit my interpretation may be incorrect because the motivations of the characters are not completely clear. David has an almost compulsive propensity for well-intentioned deceit—in maintaining appearances and in protecting others and himself. I have decided to read the novel to get a better feel for things and perhaps learn what so compelled Partridge to produce this film.
 After reading the novel (Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam), I wanted to add some supplementary comments.
Unfortunately, very few ambiguities were cleared up and the author seemed to want it that way. The author also made a point of naming names, describing the brand names of stores and products in the story, making us keenly aware of corporate dominance in society. Nadzam may have been making a political statement about how corporate culture impoverishes us while the wilds of nature ennoble and strengthen us.
Over all, Lamb seems to be conflicted about his attraction to Tommie and his sense of propriety and paternal impulses kick in and confound things. His low self-esteem seems to foul things up and cannot really understand why the women in his life are attracted to him—his wife Cathy, girlfriend Linnie and Tommie. He is always weaving these tales about how they will one day meet the men they really deserve and leave him.
Many times the author uses ambiguity to create tension in the story. One of the more abrupt and amusing examples is when Tommie is talking about her grandmother—who never even wore pants—and used to make her grilled cheese sandwiches. Lamb said someday the two of them would do that. The timing of their statements is startling at first, but we are supposed to understand that he was really talking about them making grilled cheese sandwiches together and the comment about the pants really meant that granny was old-fashioned and always wore dresses.
In the film, a point is made about giving Tommie her space and she has the bunk room all to herself—not so in the novel. Lamb sleeps on the bottom bunk and later, when Tommie has a fever, they sleep together under layers of blankets together.
In the novel, the age difference is even greater. Lamb is 54, but that detail was simply changed to match the age of Ross Partridge who played the lead.
In the film, Linnie just shows up at the cabin one day. That event also happened in the novel, but it is more clear that he made a point of inviting her, telling her he would fly her out. In part, it showed he did not understand the nature of his feelings for Tommie and may be projecting them onto Linnie. He thought he knew Linnie and that she would never have taken him up on it.
Another point of tension was whether things were make-believe or real in their conversations. Lamb got nervous when he learned that Tommie regarded the trip as “running away”, as though she never expected to return.
The incident with the coffee was much more intimate than in the film. The motivation to get Tommie into the shower was to cool off the burns from the scalding hot coffee and only incidentally to clean her top. In the novel, it was cold coffee—a cup Tommie hadn’t finished—and his concern was that she not sleep in wet clothes and sheets. The night before, Tommie slept in her clothes but this night, Lamb realized he should have bought her some pajamas. Since it was not proper for a lady to sleep in her clothes, he waited outside, counting down, instructing her to clean up, strip to her underwear, fold her clothes neatly behind the chair and get under the covers. When the coffee spilled, he picked her almost naked body out of bed to take her to the bathtub and, in a panic, shut off the lights to assure her that he could not see anything. But she protested that he could feel her. She was uncooperative and sobbing the whole time so he had to wash her himself in the dark, applying soap all over her body and then rinsing her off. In the fuss, she gave him a black eye and there was some bleeding when she bumped her chin in the tub. Only later did he admit to having seen her naked that night.
There was some confusion as to why the old man (Foster) would have been found lurking around and appearing suddenly in the shack. It turns out he and his brother-in-law had built it so he had some sense of ownership of the place and it was a workshop—a somewhat public building. This created a tension that Tommie and Lamb were being observed and every morning Lamb would look for signs that Foster had been there during the night. There were none but the smallest thing would spark his paranoia.
Another change in the film was the way Linnie’s visit ended. In the film, Tommie forces the issue by just presenting herself in plain sight of Linnie. Not accepting Lamb’s explanation, she drives off in a huff. In the novel, Tommie is accidentally discovered by Foster’s son who came over to borrow the snow plow. Both Linnie and Tommie are stunned by the turn of events and stay quiet while Lamb convinces the younger Foster that everything is just fine. He then explains the girl’s presence to Linnie and that he is about to take the girl home to her mother before returning to Chicago himself. She seems to accept this and all depart the same day. The entire trip took 20 days rather than 7–9 it was supposed to be.
A lot is still unresolved. Was Lamb ever suicidal? Or was he a calculating deceiver? Would they ever see each other again? My impression from the film is that he wanted to make a clean break, but in the novel, it seems he did really have feelings for the girl, even if he could not quite admit it to himself. Given his sense of propriety, he wanted to wait until she was older but by that time, she would be a different person.