Oona Laurence in "Lamb"

In a festival full of conversations starters, there might be no more provocative film at SXSW than Ross Partridge’s “Lamb.” A striking adaptation of Bonnie Nadzam’s 2011 novel of the same name, the writer/director stars as David Lamb, a seemingly confident and charismatic 47-year-old who’s shaken to his core by the recent death of his father, though by all indications fissures existed long before then. “I’m not a bad guy, but I could’ve been,” he insists when he comes across an 11-year-old girl named Tommie (Oona Laurence) in a Chicago parking lot, the fact that she’s asking him for a cigarette on a dare during school hours suggesting that she’s in as dire straits as he is and together, the two begin a relationship never far from danger when he whisks her away to his family’s cabin in Wyoming without her parents’ knowledge.

“Lamb” doesn’t shy away from grappling with the implications of what David pitches to Tommie as “a secret trip in your secret life,” but Partridge wisely refrains from passing too much judgment on his characters as their actions, particularly David’s, become more and more morally indefensible. Exquisitely shot by cinematographer Nathan Miller and with an unsettlingly natural rapport between Partridge and Laurence, it’s as if time stands still when the two are in each other’s company yet the writer/director makes sure that an audience keeps reconsidering the relationship that’s unfolding before them, raising all kinds of challenging questions of how far David is crossing the line to reclaim his humanity.

Fortunately, Partridge is eager to start a dialogue with the film and shortly after its premiere at SXSW, he took the time to talk about adapting the cerebral potboiler, his first since making his directorial debut with the 2000 feature “Interstate 84,” as well as working with the preternaturally poised Laurence, how to film and drive at the same time, and embracing audience reaction to a surely divisive subject matter. As a bonus, his producer and real-life partner Jennifer LaFleur, who has made a habit of brightening up a few films at this year’s festival as an actress with brief cameos, naturally pops up here.

How did you get interested in this?

Ross Partridge: When I first read the book, it was something that just hit me so physically that I couldn’t quite comprehend. I had to really investigate what it was. I gave the book to Jennifer [LaFleur], the co-producer, and said, “I think I want to make this a movie. I need you to read this. I need a different take on it from a female perspective just to see what is really happening.” She read it and she said, “This is so damn powerful. You have to do this but this is going to be a battle.”

Ultimately, it’s a love story, but not a traditional love story in a romantic sense. It’s about two people who are so lost spiritually, adrift in the world, and in such desperate pursuit of having that type of nurturing love that they never received when they were children and one happens to be in his late forties and the other is now still has full of hope and potential, but is already on the course that’s destined as this other character, and the main theme that the pursuit of love has no boundaries is what really I kept thinking about. As a character, David Lamb is so complicated, yet I can relate on so many different levels, not in his actions, but his need for love that is so far greater than his logic. I feel like a lot of us can relate to that at times. We put ourselves into situations where we’re constantly unsure about who we are because where we came from or what we’re doing and making deliberate, clear decisions.

Did you actually know while writing it that you would act in it as well?

Ross Partridge: I didn’t. Originally, I was working with my executive producer Taylor Williams on a short together and then I read the book. I was like, “You know what? Let’s skip the short. I’m going to give you this. I want you to read it.” We went through stages where I got the rights to the book. It was actually optioned by another very well-known actor, Kyle Chandler, who came out to the screening the other night. They were going to write it and he was going to star in it and we thought maybe we would revisit that, but what I really started to discover when I was adapting it was that the intimacy that I needed to create with this young girl played Oona Laurence, was going to be harder for me to [do in addition to] directing another person dealing with this young kid. It’s such a precious thing being able to work with a child and that intimacy the actor was going to need with this kid, I would have to have the same thing as a director, so it just made more sense since I’m an actor, and it’s a part that I would have loved to have always played, where I wouldn’t have to relay things twice.

When you cast Oona Laurence with all her poise, does she really change the equation of things?

Yeah, the thing about Oona is when we originally envisioned the part, it was a little more dangerous naivete on the part of the child. I think there’s a sense of naivete that comes immediately built in with an 11-year-old girl. But our casting director is very wise. She said, “You know, this is not going to be that hard for you to cast this.” I said, “Are you kidding? It’s a young kid. Who can play this?” She said, “There’s probably only five girls that actually can do this,” so it narrowed it down. Either we’re going to find it within those five girls or we’re not making the movie.

I saw Oona’s tape and I knew she was delightful as an actor, but I didn’t quite see her as the right person right away and my casting director says, “This girl is special. You have to see her and meet her in person.” As soon as I met her in person, I was like, “Oh my God.” She just has this quality of just very present but literally so confident and comfortable with who she is at such a young age. That’s really, really interesting and rare to see to a point where we took her family out for lunch after we were seriously considering her.

At one point, I was talking to her dad, who became very influential in the process and a good friend of mine. We were just talking about different things and I looked over at Oona, who just went down into her book bag, pulled out a book, and started reading, not paying attention to what we were talking about. We were talking about the film and at one point, she looked up and she said, “Dad, I really got to get going. I’ve got homework to do.” The whole process to her was not that big of a deal and that spoke volumes to me about where we could have this theme come across.

Was it tricky to navigate the first meeting between your characters in the film where they meet in the parking lot? It seems like if you don’t get the tone just right, the rest of the movie doesn’t work.

Ross Partridge: All the scenes were tricky because we were on a short time frame. All the stuff we had to do in that parking lot was one day and it’s the crux of the movie. So much of the dynamic of their relationship going back and forth is when we first meet them. I was worried also because we were shooting in June in Denver, with Colorado substituting for Chicago [where part of the story is set] and trying to create a really urban feel to the movie, a little more bleak existence before we could then find our way into the beauty of Wyoming. We shot that [scene] in our second day. It was about being brave enough to just allow nuance and the subtlety [in], which is really hard in the first couple days of a movie where you’re just trying to push it to feel where you’re going to land.

We spent a lot of time rehearsing that scene in particular, the first one where she comes up [asking for] a cigarette, but we knew we had to keep an eye on the fact that it was about the unspoken language between the two of them: where they are and really feel that they’re stuck in this environment.

There’s also a scene later in the film where your character really snaps at Oona’s character for the first time when he’s trying to get her to take a shower and in the car, the morning after, there’s a way the light breaks through the car window that was really interesting. How did you go about styling that?

Ross Partridge: Nate [Miller, the cinematographer] and I were constantly talking about the things like that, those little happy lens flares. There was something early on I read… the Leonard Cohen song “Anthem” – the lyrics are “Ring the bell that still will ring, forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” To me, that really was a summation of this movie. It’s so dark and yet if you look a little bit closer and you spend the time to really figure out the complexities of people, sometimes the darkness is the only way that certain light will get in.

As for those accidents of lens flares, those are real things that happen and instead of trying to stay away from the imperfections that sometimes happen on a camera, we were trying to embrace that the light coming into a car or the fact that she’s in this dreamlike state and it’s the light that actually brings back the noise and the sound. Those were very conscientious things. There’s another image early on, a crystal that’s hanging in the window that’s the same kind of thing or when the light hits the ring pop [she wears]. We were very conscientious in how we were building the fabric for the whole thing.

It’s been over a decade since you made your first feature, and in that time, indie filmmaking has changed quite a bit as you’re probably familiar with from your work with the Duplass Brothers. [Partridge was a producer on “The Do-Deca Pentathlon” and created the Web series “Wedlock” with the pair.]  Did have any influence on how you made this?

Ross Partridge: I think it did. In my first film, there were a lot of similar themes and cinematic qualities, but it was my first film and it was a mess. As a writer, I learned so much. It was my film school and I went on to find Mark and Jay [Duplass] and work with those guys and do a lot of films that were improvised with very avant garde cinematography where it was like we were just dogmatic and there was a documentary feel.

Yet I always come back to films that are just very still and very selective in their imagery and the quality of really being immersed into a movie that way, with pictures and the things that are unspoken. The amount of improvisation and drifting in character and dialogue made me search out something that was very specific and very scripted for a long time. I wanted something that was very detailed and very solid characters in the approach right from the beginning so they can work on the cinematic landscape as well.

Since Jennifer is sitting here, let me ask how did you decide which role she was going to play? [She has a small cameo as a concerned passerby at a rest station.]

Ross Partridge: I always consider Jennifer for everything because I think she’s terrific as an actor, but it was just trying to figure out what would make the most sense. Plus, she’s such an amazing producer, so we needed her on that aspect as well. It was more about timing.

Jennifer LaFleur: And that was the type of role that would have been a local casting. If you have somebody on set already who is game and is so connected to the story as I was as soon as Ross brought the book to me, it just made complete sense for me to kind of pop in there for a minute and be a part of it.

It’s been one of the pleasant surprises of the festival to see your cameos, whether it’s in this or Hannah Fidell’s “6 Years.”

Jennifer LaFleur: People like Ross and Hannah, I believe in their visions and their voices as filmmakers so much that I would do any size role for people like that.

Was there any big challenge on this you didn’t expect?

Jennifer LaFleur: Wind and mosquitoes.

Ross Partridge: Yeah, there were a lot of environmental things. Since I was working with a child, we wanted to cover her coverage most and keep her not from getting tired, although Oona could go all day and all night. A lot of times on some of these bigger scenes my coverage would get saved for last. One in particular is the fencepost scene at the very end. We’re shooting it at dusk, the sunset is beautiful behind us. It’s also a page-and-a-half speech between us and the mosquitoes were atrocious. I was standing and we had to get [Oona] bundled up in a blanket. Jenn had to start reading me lines off-camera because we got Oona away, so I’m trying to do this page and a half thing to Jenn.

Jennifer LaFleur: I’m on my knees in front of him.

Ross Partridge: The sun is going down, we’re losing light, there’s mosquitoes everywhere, and it was one of my favorite scenes in the script and in the book. We had to shoot it extremely quickly and it was really a testament to our crew hanging in there, and to Oona and how terrific she is.

There’s a lot of scenes that we just left in two shots. One, for time, but also because performance-wise, I never wanted to make a big imprint on this story. I felt if we just tell the story cleanly, it will be enough and because we got lucky enough to have an amazing actor in Oona, we could let things play out. There’s a scene in the motel that’s just a two-shot of the two of us for about three minutes and the whole scene plays out. I’m really proud of that because we had such a tight schedule.

Jennifer LaFleur: I think it’s also a testament to Ross’ performance, watching those scenes and knowing that it was like doing those lines with me on my knees and trying to imagine Oona. You see the connection, the chemistry that they have together. He’s able to carry it through after she’s left set and still transform that into whoever he’s doing the scenes with.

Ross Partridge: Most of the driving stuff was with Jenn in the backseat because we were shooting on an Alexa and we could not get enough space. It was a big rig and we couldn’t get another actor to act off-camera in the front seat, so basically Jenn would be in the backseat reading lines and I would be acting to a little piece of tape on the lens, while I was driving mind you, through the streets of Denver. Completely illegal.

That’s a brilliant idea though. Finally, what was the premiere like? I suspect with such touchy subject matter you might’ve been a little nervous.

Ross Partridge: I was certainly somewhat nervous, but at the same time, the divisiveness of it hasn’t been as apparent as I thought it would be. I’m honored and so grateful that actually more people have been affected by this movie in the right way, from test screenings that we were doing early on to now. There are a few that have been completely like, “We’re out,” and we are so willing to open up that dialogue to those people because it’s hard – they want to be able to identify what this character is and you can’t. [David] can’t.

The problem lies in people’s own interpretation of it. It’s like a Rorschach test. A lot of people want to say he’s this and he’s that and he’s a monster and he’s all those things. He’s not a lot of the things that people want him to be and that’s really hard for people to hold on to. But for the most part, people have sought out the other parts of this story that make them uncomfortable but also makes them really have to think and exercise part of their heart that they’re not used to exercising.

“Lamb” will open in Los Angeles and New York on January 8th.