“Lamb” deserves kudos for its daring story — the complicated, emotional friendship between a man of 47 and a girl of 11 — but the promising psychological drama often gets muddled as it veers between queasiness and sentimentality.
When we first meet David Lamb, he seems like an amiable loser: He’s taking care of his embittered, dying father; he’s in a dead-end affair with a co-worker; and he’s living at a dumpy motel. Nothing in his backstory prepares us for the twisted journey on which he is about to embark.
After burying his father, Lamb takes a smoking break in the parking lot of a strip mall, where the waifish Tommie (Oona Laurence, very good), on a dare from friends, approaches him for a cigarette. To teach Tommie and her friends a lesson about talking to strangers, Lamb whisks her away in his car — a fake abduction. Or perhaps not a fake abduction.
Before you can say “Lolita,” Lamb is buying dresses for the unsupervised Tommie and taking her on an extended vacation without permission from her disengaged mother. This bizarre jaunt to the wilderness, including stops at out-of-the-way motels, is the heart of the film, and we are left to wonder just how uncomfortable this road trip is going to get.
It’s not hard to understand the impressionable and unloved Tommie, and why she could fall under the influence of this man. But it’s much more difficult to get a grasp on where Lamb (played by director Ross Partridge) is coming from. Is he a deluded do-gooder? A monster trying to control his base instincts? A pathetic man trying to rewrite his life?
This murkiness is quite intentional, and Partridge has a strong screen presence, but the potential power of his storytelling approach is negated when emotions get mushy in the third act. That’s when we figure out that this film doesn’t know exactly what it wants to say.
(At AMC Barrywoods, Studio 28, Town Center.)
Not rated. Time: 1:36.