Ross Partridge’s Lamb is an unwitting endurance test of indie-auteur hubris run amok. Its structure devised to afford its actor-writer-director several Big Scenes for exercising his acting chops as the titular character and highlight the narrative’s dreary take on an unlikely friendship forged between Lamb and Tommie (Oona Laurence), an 11-year-old Chicagoan who’s taken under Lamb’s wing after she tries to bum a cigarette one afternoon, resulting in the pair fleeing together on a road trip toward the Rocky Mountains.
The film hinges on the implications of this trip, with both the question of Lamb’s intentions and Tommie’s ability to make decisions for herself as narrative concerns. Partridge seems convinced he’s cooking up a poetic treatise on life in the Rust Belt, namely in long shots of shabby city streets and liquor-store windows that ensconce characters walking by in order to enunciate maximal authenticity. But the settings ultimately play as little more than window dressing for the film’s characters’ dutifully fractured lives and uncertain futures, especially as Partridge piles on the muck, whether its Tommie’s seemingly desolate home life or Lamb’s crumbling circumstances, having gotten divorced and lost his father in the span of a few weeks.
Partridge integrates a few interesting choices that move Lamb away from outright exploitation. When Tommie returns home several hours late, her parents don’t so much scold her as tersely explain why she’s being selfish by not keeping tabs. The blocking is interesting too, as the parents make their proclamations from the comfort of the living room couch with their eyes glued to a TV show, rather than popping up to perform a bit of keyed-in parenting. The moment succinctly conveys character dynamics and attitudes visually and with minimal dialogue, but as the film wears on, Partridge constructs scenes for their soapbox potential, placing thematic aims into plainly stated monologues delivered by Lamb as purported life lessons for Tommie. If Lamb’s philosophical musings are meant to be vague or indicative of the character’s instability, Partridge provides no such confirmation.
Worst of all, Partridge seems flatly fascinated by Lamb’s pathology without trying to understand its formation from environmental factors, whether related to familial or urban decay. The film relegates its titular figure to being little more than an insular sad sap, whose limited capacity for self-reflection culminates in a characteristically overwritten scene, with Lamb stating: “I think I might be an awful person.” A flat instantiation of indie-cinema pathos, the declaration fails to convince as a dramaturgical stopping point primarily because Partridge creates no stakes out of Lamb’s degeneration.