Ross Partridge’s film ‘Lamb’ is not a horror film, though anyone reading the one-star reviews it has received on imdb.com could hardly be blamed for thinking it were:
“wow..just horrible..the movie is trying to normalize pedophilia..it is disturbing to see that now this is the trend..showing that a relationship between a middle aged man and a very young child is normal and perfectly natural..
It is quite shocking that we reached this point where these kind of movies now pop up, and people cant see nothing abnormal about it. Movies as a matter of fact have always been used as an efficient tool to brainwash..this movie is doing just that,,brainwashing
avoid this movie..trash that presents child abduction and pedophilia in a positive light!!“
Of course such a response won’t surprise any world-weary Kind: a film that focuses on the developing friendship between a forty-seven year-old man and a girl of eleven (‘Tommie’, played by Oona Laurence), a friendship that briefly blossoms after the two run away together to a secluded hide-out, is bound to feel like a horror movie to anyone who unquestioningly buy into the dominant narrative on child sexuality and paedophilia.
I’m no film-buff – I probably watch no more than six or seven films in an average year – and am too squeamish to be a fan of anything that seeks to scare or disturb me, but horror films are interesting because the monsters and ghosts they depict often embody and explore the fears and anxieties of the society they emerged from.
Think how films which explore the corruption of the human body, such as The Fly and The Thing, proliferated when people first became aware of the true significance of AIDS; how cold war America produced endless horror movies whose monsters were aliens; how nowadays the zombie embodies both our fear of ageing, and – with the increase in islamic terrorism – our anxieties over how apparently normal people can suddenly transform into savage monsters intent on the death of innocents (this may be reflected in the difference between the slow, encumbered zombies of, say, George A. Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead and the preternaturally fast-moving zombies in World War Z).
But is it only in horror films that we find embodied our hidden, inarticulate fears? And why only fears? If horror films are disturbing because they embody things we find hard to face in real life, could the horror expressed in the above review arise because ‘Lamb’ revealed to the reviewer hidden aspects of himself that he was not able to face or acknowledge?
Lamb is not the kind of film that is spoiled by spoilers: it is free of gratuitous plot-twists and cliff-hangers, the story is simple and follows a natural course.
Whilst this essay neither is a ‘review’ nor requires of the reader a detailed knowledge of its plot for those who have not yet seen the film the following paragraph provides a thumbnail outline of the plot – please treat it as optional reading:
The film starts off in a grim urban environment. David Lamb, a 47 year-old divorcee whose father has just died, meets a sensitive little girl, Tommie, who is neglected by her parents and whose friends treat her with disrespect. He pretends to abduct her, ostensibly in order to give her so-called friends a fright, but immediately drops her off near her home. Over a period of a few days they become friends. Tommie seems to be attracted to Lamb. Together, and without telling anyone, they escape on a ‘holiday’ to a log cabin set in the kind of beautiful wilderness which Tommie has long dreamed of. Lamb shows that he can be selfish and manipulative, but we’re never quite clear what it is he wants, and the manipulation is not clear-cut. Their relationship is tested in various ways (including Lamb’s girlfriend making an unexpected visit and discovering Tommie) and grows stronger. They find a happiness and companionship in each other which has been lacking in their lives. The ‘holiday’ ends and they drive back to the girl’s home so that he can drop her off a few streets away. They have an intensely emotional parting; neither wants the relationship to end, but Lamb knows that it can not continue and drives away, presumably out of Tommie’s life for ever.
Whilst, of course, I disagree with the tenor of the above imdb.com review, there is a truth hidden behind the indignation and bluster when ‘petervoicu’ writes:
“…we reached this point where these kind of movies now pop up, and people cant see nothing abnormal about it
[…] trash that presents child abduction and pedophilia in a positive light!!”
There does seem to be a lot of films in which an adult and a child share an intense relationship that would, in real life, be considered as abnormal by ‘normal’ people, films which make the viewer to view the relationship ‘in a positive light’ and root for its success and continuance.
An Invisible Genre?
Here is a list of films I remember having watched which answer the criteria outlined in the previous paragraph:
Dreamchild; Mary and Max; Leon; Lawn Dogs; About a Boy; The Last Butterfly; A Perfect World; Wreck-It Ralph; Up; Les Dimanches de la Ville D’avray; Pretty Baby; Paper Moon; Alice in the Cities; 3 Men and a Little Lady; Indiana Jones and The Temple Of Doom; Tiger Bay; Curly Sue; Big Daddy; Cinema Paradiso; City of Lost Children; La Drôlesse; Zazie Dans le Metro; A.I. Artificial Intelligence; El Nido; What Maisie Knew; Munted; The Sixth Sense; The Road; Aliens; Bicycle Thieves; Finding Neverland; The Innocents; The Jungle Book; The Time-Traveller’s Wife; The Man Without a Face; Shane; A High Wind in Jamaica; Il Ladro Di Bambini (the Stolen Children).
Though this list is personal and spectacularly incomplete (and I invite readers to add those films I’ve omitted) it nevertheless can be use to reveal some of the parameters and boundaries of this ‘genre’:
The relationships are between men and children, maybe most commonly girls (though this impression may just be down to my preference for films featuring little girls). There are some women protagonists, such as Ripley in Aliens and the governess in The Innocents.
The adult is troubled, damaged or, in some way, inadequate. This allows the viewer to identify and sympathise with the adult without having to approve of the adult’s motives and actions.
The child is neglected, an orphan or at risk. This allows for the absence of ‘legitimate’ adults (e.g. parents) whose presence would over-complicate the development of the relationship by competing for the child’s affection. It also establishes a justification for why the child might be drawn to such a relationship.
The relationship happens in circumstances which isolate the couple from their families, community or society (a road trip in ‘Alice in the Cities‘, an attic in ‘La Drôlesse‘). This again (see above) eliminates many problematic impediments to the relationship that would arise were it to be set in an everyday context. It also allows the film to depict a positive and consensual relationship – something that could be very controversial to do were ‘legitimate’ adults also present.
The relationship (though not necessarily criminal or paedophilic) is not one that would be approved of by the protagonists’ community or society.
The relationship often has sexual or sensual aspects (Leon, Pretty Baby…).
The adult eventually dies (Perfect World) or permanently disappears from the child’s life (Shane). There can be no Happy-Ever-After endings to a story of transgressive child-adult love, at least there can be none that would be acceptable within the dominant narrative. Killing off the adult is the most obvious way of giving a neat ending to the relationship. It also has the advantage of symbolically punishing the adult for something which, for all the film’s sympathetic view-point, ultimately Society can not tolerate. Even the loneliness that David Lamb drives off to, or Shane walks into, at the ends of their respective films could be interpreted as a form of death, a penance for the sin of having loved a child too much.
The relationship is tested by interference from the world beyond it – which is presented as uncomprehending, suspicious, interfering or villainous. One often gets the feeling in these films that it is a case of ‘the child-adult couple against the world’.
The relationship evokes the viewers’ sympathy and support: despite its transgressive nature we wish it to succeed. We experience this especially at moments when the world beyond the relationship interferes with the relationship and puts it at risk.
These are not defining characteristics – these films do not have to have all these characteristics. Some of the most interesting films are the ones which conform least to this list: in Gavin Millar’s Dreamchild – a time-shifting account of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s love for Alice Liddell – Dodgson neither dies nor disappears in the end, Alice is not neglected or at risk, and the relationship does not develop in an isolated context (though a deeper reading than I have space for here could show that it conforms to these characteristics in a more roundabout manner).
But I think what is most significant is how such films seduce ordinary ‘right-thinking’ people (i.e. dispositional paedophobes) into rooting for and sympathising with relationships which they would judge with odium were they to occur in the real life or if they were to read about them in the press.
Of course one explanation of this could be that a media report of, say, a man and child running away together, when compared to a film, will be so summary and so constructed out of prejudice that nothing of the true emotional nature of the relationship will be communicated, only a series of clichés hammered through the template of the dominant narrative. So it’s not surprising that someone who might cheer and root for Léon and Mathilda’s relationship whilst watching Luc Besson’s Léon: The Professional will, over breakfast the next morning, wish painful and prolonged torture on all the ‘paedos’ he reads about in his newspaper.
Which brings me tangentially to the question of what is the target demographic for a film like Lamb.
It would be fascinating to get access to some qualitative statistics on the audience for Lamb. However I’ve searched the internet for something, anything, and drawn a blank (if anyone has any idea whether such statistics exist and how they can be found I’d be very grateful if they could let me know).
However, in lieu of statistics, I think that it might be possible to draw some insights from the film itself, and from the assumption that those characters that are most richly drawn in a film will tend to correspond to the film’s core demographic.
I think we can straight away discount children or young adolescents as being part of the target demographic since the film has an ‘r’ rating.
I also suspect that women are not its target audience as there are no well-developed or interesting adult female characters in the film. I also suspect that most women would find David Lamb too ‘creepy‘ to carry them through the film.
Nevertheless David Lamb is the most complexly drawn character in the film, and despite the manipulative and dishonest way he acts towards Tommie I suspect that those most likely to empathise with his actions are adult males, particularly those entering middle age and who have experienced loneliness, childlessness or the empty-nest syndrome as their own children leave home.
And, of course, I mustn’t forget another demographic this film has undoubtedly been successful with: paedophiles.
But Lamb is not an erotic film – there is no hint at any sexual interaction between the protagonists. Could it be that those aspects of this film that have attracted the paedophile demographic also appeal to the ‘normal’ middle-aged man demographic?
If horror films like The Thing and The Fly embody a society’s anxiety about AIDS can we also ask of a film like Lamb what hidden social anxieties, fears, desires or hopes it embodies?
I think we can. And a clue might be in the emotions they provoke. The sight of Jeff Goldblum slowly transmogrifying into a giant man-fly fills us with the same horror and disgust as would the prospect of our own body being taken over with a disease like AIDS.
What do we feel about the relationships we see in Léon, Lamb, Lawn Dogs, Les Dimanches De la Ville D’avray or El Nido (to only cite films beginning with ‘L’)?
I’d venture (though admittedly as a paedophile my judgment may be biased) that it isn’t sexual desire, but rather a yearning for a kind of relationship that is denied us, that is considered deviant and illegitimate.
“I get that these two characters are lost/lonely and the girl is both abused & starving for affection and you can argue all day that this is a beautiful movie about friendship, but this movie is completely & utterly socially irresponsible!!! I believe this movie is an attempt to […]make the audience think that this […] situation could be appropriate if it was handled as delicately. NO. See it for what it is. It is a grown man trying to make friends with a child, not a girlfriends daughter, not a niece, a separate child. Deplorable.” (my underlining)
So, poisoncupcake74, by your admission the girl is ‘lost‘, ‘lonely‘, ‘abused & starving for affection‘. But because the person who is willing to step into this girl’s life and remedy these ills is a ‘stranger’ and not a step-father or an uncle it is better that she remain doomed than that she be saved by someone who does not fit into society’s idea of an approved adult.
It seems that an adult and a child ‘trying to make friends’ is viewed with the same opprobrium as an adult and a child wanting to share sensual intimacy! Friendships between non-familial adults and children become more and more stigmatised and problematic in real life.
I suspect the increased depiction of these kinds of relationships in film (and indeed, arguably, in other forms of art) points to a cultural yearning for what we’ve lost – something that we can now only legitimately experience vicariously through fiction.
And that’s why millions can enjoy these films and find them emotionally powerful and true, and can root for the central relationships without having to be paedophiles, repressed or otherwise.
I’m no anthropologist but I understand that Homo sapiens evolved in small communities that were socially promiscuous and minimally stratified by age – children would learn skills, knowledge and culture from their interactions with adults and, though children probably played mostly with other children, there would be rich interactions between generations – which would inevitably lead to friendships, which, in their turn would be beneficial to the social integration of the child into the culture of the tribe.
Is it possible that the need for child-adult friendships is somehow deeply ingrained in us? What happens when we are denied this? Is it surprising that we might turn to fiction as a salve for the emptiness created in our lives by the absence of such essential relationships?