Ross Partridge is making people very uncomfortable.
Or at least his indie movie “Lamb” is.
The South by Southwest festival hit, which opens Friday at the AMC Barrywoods and is available on video-on-demand services, is about the relationship of a 47-year-old man and an 11-year-old girl. It’s not an overtly sexual situation, but it’s still plenty disturbing.
“Yeah, this is a film that asks you to work,” Partridge said of the movie he directed, wrote and stars in with young Tony-winning actress Oona Laurence. “People have told me they were sweating watching it and felt like they needed a shower afterwards. I’ve seen people get up in the middle of the movie, go outside, pace a while and then come back. A few were borderline hysterical by the end.”
Partridge, a veteran actor with an “oh-yeah-that-guy” face (his credits include TV series like “Diagnosis Murder,” “Law & Order” and “CSI” and films ranging from the mumblecore “Baghead” to the mainstream hit “The Lost World: Jurassic Park”) knew from his first reading of Bonnie Nadzam’s 2011 novel that he had to turn it into a film.
“It was a staff pick at my local bookstore,” he recalled. “Standing there in the shop I read four chapters, bought it, took it home and finished it. I felt immediately that there was something there, so many different emotions ranging from tenderness to revulsion. It’s rare to have that sort of experience and I wanted to explore it further.”
The story becomes a road trip when middle-aged David Lamb — a deeply troubled individual reeling from the collapse of his marriage and the death of his father — drives his young friend Tommie (Oona) from Chicago to his family’s decaying vacation cabin in the foothills of the Rockies.
A latchkey kid eager to flee her wretched home life, Tommie goes willingly — but it looks to the outside world a lot like an abduction. Throughout the film Lamb’s motives are murky. If his attraction to the girl isn’t sexual, it is at the very least dangerously manipulative.
Finding money for such a risky project would seem to be a herculean task. But, Partridge said, he was lucky enough to meet Taylor Williams, a writer/producer/director who funded the entire effort.
“I was so fortunate to find a guy who wanted to take chances, who wants to put art out into the world instead of the same old stuff.”
The “Lamb” project moved at supersonic speed, at least by the usual Hollywood standards. Within six months of reading the book, Partridge — his previous directing credits are for the TV series “Wedlock” and the 2000 feature “Interstate 84” — was shooting the movie.
Playing Lamb was a challenge, Partridge said, because his motivations are murky even to the actor portraying him.
“Confusion is his motivation. Lamb has the ability to shape-shift to any situation. He’s a guy without a foundation, one who exists only in the immediate moment. He’s in need, he’s hurting, and he makes illogical choices. He’s become a narcissist and a liar just to stay alive.”
Partridge is perfectly matched by young Oona Laurence, 13, who has an honorary Tony Award for her work in the Broadway musical “Matilda” and who was most recently seen as Jake Gyllenhaal’s daughter in the boxing drama “Southpaw.” Currently she is wrapping up a remake of the Disney classic “Pete’s Dragon.”
“I keep telling people she’s remarkable not for an 11-year-old but for an actor of any age,” Partridge said. “Oona’s spectacular both as an actress and as a human being. She knows exactly who she is and is completely comfortable in her own skin. Way ahead of her years.”
Partridge has no children (he’s getting married in April) and at first wondered how he would relate to an 11-year-old. He got plenty of coaching from Oona’s father, Robert, who was a constant presence on the set.
“He was a real lifeline, a real partner. I’d ask him, ‘As a parent how does this feel to you?’ And he always gave an honest answer.”
As to the future, Partridge said he’d like to continue directing. But maybe not in movies in which he appears.
“I realized that I was most relaxed on those days when I didn’t have to act. And after three months of editing I got really tired of looking at myself.”