Dir: Gary Winick. US. 2002. 78mins
A comic delight that features one of the painfully funniest restaurant scenes in recent memory, Gary Winick's Tadpole became an audience favourite the moment it screened in Sundance this year and an immediate target for studio distributors who saw the potential for a theatrical breakout among sophisticated audiences the world over. The story of a teenage boy's romantic obsession with a much older woman (Sigourney Weaver), who just happens to be his stepmother, Tadpole bears more than a passing resemblance to mid-career Woody Allen in terms in sharp writing, pitch-perfect acting, upscale Manhattan milieu and utterly economical direction. Although some in Park City grumbled about what appeared to be a muddy transfer from digital video to the big screen, the vast majority were so swept along by this endearing story and engaging characters that they were willing to forgive or forget any visual shortcomings. In any case, such aesthetic niceties tend only to be readily apparent to those who make their living from the film business: certainly they did not put buyers off from battling each other in a high-priced bidding war. In the end, Miramax paid up to $6m for worldwide rights.
Aaron Stanford, in the central role of the love-struck 15-year-old once nicknamed Tadpole, is a revelation here in his first film as a professional actor. Watching him break out into fluent French and spout aphorisms by Voltaire in ardent pursuit of his first love is like seeing one of Wes Anderson's precocious creations thrown into the wealthy, neurotic, Upper Manhattan habitats popularly identified with films like Hannah And Her Sisters. From the outset, it is clear that his Oscar Grubman is not your typical high-testosterone American teenager as he returns home with his best buddy for a family Thanksgiving. For one thing, he rebuffs the attentions of an attractive girl from his high school on the basis of her hands. And when he does admit to having romantic urges typical of boys his age, the object of his desire turns out to be Eve (Weaver), the woman now married to his father (Ritter).
Not unnaturally, his well-meaning but emotionally clueless father, a professor at Columbia University's history department, is keen to fix his son up with prospective girls of his own age. But his attempts to do so at the Thanksgiving gathering only conspire to land the teen drunk at the home of Eve's best friend, Diane (Neuwirth). She happens to be a chiropractor - and once she starts to work on Oscar's prone body - while wearing his stepmother's perfumed scarf, - it all proves too much for his sensitive soul and stirring loins and the two fall into bed together.
From then on Oscar's world is thrown into a comic delirium as he tries to win over the heart of his stepmother, all the while trying to keep her best friend from spilling the beans over their illicit tryst. Things come to a hilarious head at a restaurant when Diane, - played to the teasing, flirtatious hilt by Neuwirth, - plays footsie with the mortified Oscar right under the noses of both his parents. Destined to become a classic, the scene is milked by Winick and his writing team for all its mischievous worth as they revel in Oscar's prolonged agony at the prospect of being caught out by his dad, - or worse still, his second mother.
Whether Oscar proves ultimately successful in his love's labours should be left to those that see this gem. All that should be noted here is that the resolution shrewdly avoids leaving behind bigger emotional wreckage than was needed for a delicate coming-of-age tale that is played for such crisp amusement.
Winick is one of the founding partners in the InDigEnt low-budget digital filmmaking partnership modelled after Denmark's Dogme 95 collective and inspired by the films of proto-indie John Cassavetes. Seven films have come out of the initiative including this one. As a director whose credits have previously included The Tic Code, Sweet Nothing and the horror film Curfew, Winick has tended before to tackle much darker themes. Here he switches gears to present a generous-hearted appreciation of human frailties and peculiarities that cannot fail to leave audiences smiling at the end. In tone, it is worlds apart from a film such as David O Russell's Spanking The Monkey, which also dealt with maternal incest but in a much more twisted, and disturbing, manner.
Winick's joyously unpretentious direction and the film's short running time also demonstrate how quickly digital filmmaking has evolved from its somewhat self-indulgent roots as a platform for artistic experimentation and emotional agonising. Here the intimacy and immediacy that comes from using DV cameras are simply used to propel the storytelling momentum - and the result, its low-budget notwithstanding, is all the more deliciously entertaining for that. The digital tadpole has truly frog-leaped to the next level.
Prod co: IFC Productions, InDigEnt
Int'l sales: Cinetic Media
Prods: Dolly Hall, Alexis Alexanian
Exec prods: Jonathan Sehring, Caroline Kaplan, John Sloss
Scr: Niels Mueller, Heather McGowan
Cinematography: Hubert Taczanowski
Ed: Susan Littenberg
Prod des: Anthony Gasparro
Art dir: Sara Parks
Costume des: Suzanne Schwarzer
Main cast: Aaron Stanford, Sigourney Weaver, John Ritter, Bebe Neuwirth, Robert Iler