“Lamb,” a slow-burning creep-out about a kidnapping, would like you to see it as a requiem for the lost and the loveless. Set in a present that looks like real life but doesn’t feel like it, the story pivots on its title sad sack, David Lamb, a habitual dissembler and possible sociopath mired in personal and professional crisis. Death, marital and work woes, a young mistress — Lamb has it all when one day he sweeps away an 11-year-old girl, taking her for, well, what exactly is the question that reverberates queasily through this movie, its hotel rooms and weepy moments.
Lamb — played by the movie’s writer and director, Ross Partridge — first meets Tommie (a solid Oona Laurence) when she toddles up to him in a parking lot clutching a pink purse and almost falling off her high heels. She’s a stick figure with a curtain of lank hair, but she has grit, watchful eyes and friends who have dared her to bum a cigarette. For reasons that are never altogether clear, including, apparently, to Lamb, he gives her a smoke and then hustles her into his SUV, insisting that he’s teaching her a cautionary lesson. This abduction turns out to be a practice run for the extended snatching that consumes much of the story.
The movie opens with a little leisurely narrative table-setting, including some back story for Lamb and peeks at Tommie’s generically bleak home life, which is largely illustrated by a scene of two parental zombies (Lindsay Pulsipher and Scoot McNairy) staring at a blaring television. Soon, though, Lamb is sidling up to Tommie and your internal klaxons are sounding, as, for instance, when he says that he’s not “corrupting” her. Is Lamb trying to convince Tommie or himself or us? Coyly, Mr. Partridge doesn’t say. Instead, even after Lamb takes a willing if wary Tommie on a promised short trip, the movie leaves room for vaguely “innocent” readings that suggest he only wants to rescue her even while it insinuatingly moves them into cozy hotel rooms that signal the worst is guaranteed.
“Lamb” is based on a 2011 novel by Bonnie Nadzam that reads like an oblique response to Nabokov’s “Lolita.” What makes it an interesting exercise is the way Ms. Nadzam plays with narrative viewpoint, especially in her use of the limited third person for Lamb, which allows you to see what’s squirming in his head but doesn’t force you deep in the cranial muck as Nabokov does with that first-person fabulist Humbert Humbert. Ms. Nadzam shares Lamb’s thinking, but at a distance, as when she writes about how he sees Tommie: “He’d taken her for 13 at least.” She further complicates her novel with some speculation (“let’s say”) and through her sly deployment of the wiggly “would,” which suggests that Lamb’s thoughts have shifted into the hypothetical.
Mr. Partridge, a character actor who looks like he auditions for Dermot Mulroney types, has a relaxed, pleasant presence; what he doesn’t have is a grasp on the story’s ugliness, its viewpoints or how his nice-guy vibe is at odds with the self-deluded exploiter he plays. In the novel, Lamb is a fantasist who uses Tommie as a blank (pure) slate on which to write a new life story. Mr. Partridge never figures out how to complicate his version and its voices, or maybe doesn’t want to. He softens Lamb and Tommie with tears, safe hugs and averted looks and, once they land in the countryside, mires them in sentimentality. He tries to turn Lamb into a sheep in wolf’s clothing, but it’s a bad fit.
“Lamb” is not rated. Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes.