There are independent films, and then there are independent films. I am a big fan of much of the indy cinema I've seen, but much of the films I've seen over the last few years show real insight and genius. Kevin Smith's film "Clerks" was my introduction, Peter Care's "Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" furthered my interest, and now comes Tadpole, from writers Heather McGowan and Niels Mueller, and director Gary Winick, furthering this developing non-Hollywood interest of mine.
This story revolves around Oscar Grubman, a 15-year old sophomore at a boarding school, who speaks fluent French, reads Voltaire, and has fallen in love with an older woman. The problem arises in his choice of older women... his stepmother, Eve. Oscar's father, Stanley, is a history professor at Columbia University, and is a bit of a distracted academic when it comes to spending time with, or even really paying attention to, his wife. Throw into the mix Eve's best friend Diane, whose lifestyle is much freer than her rather repressed, unhappy friend, and the situation begins to snowball. And while some of the twists are expected, others are not, and the film simmers in a fine sauce of genuine emotion and honest humor, and delivers a rather refreshing bouillon of intriguing, engaging story.
Aaron Stanford (Oscar) delivers a compelling, believable performance in his big-screen debut as a tormented 15-year old who is far wiser than his years, but shackled by a society that values age over knowledge and intent. He is so believable that, during one daydream sequence, I found myself embarrassed at the level of naive romanticism we were allowed to see. It made me remember that time in my life, and how effusive I was in my affections at that time. This is the movie's strength, its ability to evoke memory in its viewers, and remind them how it felt to be that age, wanting to be older and able to do more yet stuck in awkward adolescence.
The supporting cast are wonderful as well. Sigourney Weaver plays Eve, the object of young Oscar's affections. She does a wonderful job of becoming the woman that has everything, and yet is not truly happy, yet not truly unhappy either, rather simply coasting along in neutral while going about her day-to-day routine. It is this transient emotional state, this place of resolved stability, that attracts Oscar to her, and makes him feel he can give her what she is lacking to become truly happy.
John Ritter plays Stanley Grubman, and while many remember the zany, pratfalling younger actor, I find I much prefer this older, wiser, more sincere gentleman. Stanley is really the antagonist of the piece, if one can be said to exist, and yet he is eminently likable, and shows only the same failings that so many people suffer from at one point or another... dedication to ones work, the loss of perspective amidst career responsibilities, and the caul that returns to hinder our gaze as we begin to accept day-to-day life as the be-all, end-all of our existence.
Bebe Neuwirth plays Diane, a single woman who, at the age of forty, is still looking for someone who will listen, someone who is passionate about what they believe in, someone who will genuinely care more for someone else than for themselves. That she finds that in a boy who is only fifteen is one of the great ironies of this film, an irony she is able to articulate and point out to someone else towards the films conclusion.
The best thing about this movie, from my standpoint of being a casual but growing fan of this type of cinema, is the honest, warm, natural humor that I found within. As I get older, I find I enjoy broad, general humor less and less, and am more attracted to sarcastic, or intellectual, or honest humor more, and this film had enough honest humor to make me laugh out loud several times during the running. Don't get me wrong... this is not a comedy, far from it, but as a drama, it is suffused with enough reality, enough writing that seems as genuine as if it had come from someone we know, that we are able to sympathize and empathize with the characters enough to share in their joy, and their growth. That is where the humor springs from, and where it gets its power.
My only criticism for this piece is in response to some of the decisions made by director Winick and cinematographer Hubert Taczanowski. There were just a few shots in the first half of the film, all outdoor shots, that reminded me of the student films I watched at a screening back when my brother was in film school at the University of Michigan. There were shots that seemed to be taken simply for the sake of appearing artistic. Instead of lending to the film's atmosphere, they broke the mood, brought me up out of my immersion in the story, to look, wonderingly, and ask myself what the motivation for that particular choice was. Fortunately, all those types of shots seem to have been in the first 30 minute of the film, so the last hour or so were delightfully unencumbered by the "art film-itis" seen before.
Overall, I give this film an A-, and recommend it strongly. It is not suitable for children, and may give some teenagers idea, but it is a wonderful, thoughtful film that ends up choosing the high road and not succumbing to any of the typical clichés for such undertakings. See this one before it leaves the theatre, since independent films tend not to stick around very long.