By any measure, "Lamb" is an unsettling watch.
The drama, based on the acclaimed novel by Bonnie Nadzam, raises a lot of red flags. A middle-age man at the end of his tether develops a friendship with an 11-year-old girl from a dysfunctional family. Is he a pedophile? Or just a lonely man who wants to bring some joy and hope into a young girl's bleak life?
The uncertainty is what appealed to Ross Partridge ("Secret in Their Eyes," "The Off Hours"), the writer, director and star of "Lamb," which opens Friday. When he read the novel, "I couldn't figure out where it was going. It forced me to actually look closer rather than be creeped out by the situation."
Producer Mel Eslyn, who is nominated for a Spirit Award for producer of the year for "Lamb," had the same reaction to the Nadzam novel.
"Ross and I worked together quite a few years back on a film called 'Treatment,'" she noted. "Ross said, 'I'm sending this book.' I get half through the book, and I said, 'If this goes one way, I'm throwing it across the room.' I'm having serious doubts about my friend Ross. But the book never went where I was fearful it would."
Partridge's script made her head spin: "I don't know about what is going on here. I don't know how to feel about the decisions that characters are making. I can't stop thinking about it. And that means I have to do it."
David Lamb's life is falling apart. His angry father, who never loved him, has just died. His wife has left him. And his boss has told him to take time off when it's learned he's having an affair with a younger co-worker (Jess Weixler). Smoking a cigarette one afternoon in the parking lot of a store, contemplating his dead-end future, Lamb is approached by an 11-year-old girl named Tommie (Oona Laurence), who has been dared by her friends to ask him for a cigarette.
Lamb recognizes a kindred spirit in Tommie and doesn't want her to have a miserable existence like his. Eventually, he drives her to a cabin out West so she can witness natural beauty. The trip changes their lives in ways they could never imagine.
"What is really tragic beyond David Lamb's own psyche is what happens when people fall through the cracks," said Partridge. "This girl seeking out her mother's clothes and wearing high heels running across the parking lot and asking a stranger for a cigarette is something that equally needs to be talked about — the neglect that kids have when parents have children and don't have the proper tools in order to be a parent."
Lamb and Tommie, noted Partridge," are both trying to kind of use each other. To judge him based on his actions is exactly right. He is an adult. But once you start breaking it down and start looking at him more closely, his formative years that have paralyzed him as an adult — every choice he's made were the repercussions of that time period. If you have these people who are disconnected and feel alienated in the world, they don't have the wherewithal to make decisions."
The two, said Eslyn, reach a level of intimacy on "such a different spectrum than anything sexual. But I will be the first to admit it was hard for me to wrap my head around it for a second — I am questioning what's right and what's wrong. Then I had a moment myself just as a woman where I went, 'Oh, gosh, I wish somebody had taken me on a road trip and shown me beautiful things when I was 11."'
There's an extraordinary chemistry between Partridge and Laurence, who recently appeared in "Southpaw" as Jake Gyllenhaal's daughter and was one of the four actresses who earned a Tony in 2013 for playing the lead role in "Matilda: The Musical" on Broadway.
"She is a magical human being," said Partridge. "As an actor, she has this thing at 11 you hardly see in adult actors. She is so comfortable and confident about who she is."