I decided some time ago for a long list of reasons that I wasn’t going to have a kid, but that was before I met Lamb’s Ada…
…Ada isn’t like your average child. She’s a bit quieter. A bit sweeter. And oh, she’s also half-human, half-sheep, and all adorable. So it’s no wonder that our protagonists immediately fall in love with her, but as they learn in director Valdimar Johannsson’s feature debut, Lamb, which just had its West Coast premiere at Beyond Fest, Mother Nature is cruel and deceiving.
Written by Johannsson and Sjon, Lamb stars Noomi Rapace as Maria, who lives on an isolated farm in Iceland with her husband Ingvar (Hilmir Snaer Guonason). They lead a nice yet boring life, one which is suddenly turned upside down when one of their sheep gives birth to a curious child with the head of a lamb and the body of a human baby. Instead of screaming their heads off and burning it, the couple takes little Ada in as their own. But when Ingvar’s punk rock brother Petur (Bjorn Hlynur Heraldsson) shows up, he brings with him misunderstanding and trouble that threatens to tear the whole newfound family apart.
Not to mention, there’s also a strange force roaming the land that’s lurking in the background.
Lamb is no black sheep when it comes to the standards of an A24 production. It’s as high art, strange, dark and terribly human as we’ve come to expect with anything birthed by the studio, so if A24 movies aren’t your jam, I can say right now, Lamb might be too much for you. But I’ll also tell you, you’re missing out, because Lamb is one of the most oddly charming movies of the year, and an impressive debut from Johannsson.
Johannsson sets the stage early for this genre-blend with an introduction that is as eerie as it is beautiful. The Icelandic location is breathtaking, and there are times where I wished I could pause the film just to take in the wonder of the mountains and miles of green land untouched by people. There’s a magic in the air of Lamb, but one that brings with it an ominous horror just out of sight. As we’re shown the lay of the land, we’re taken into the barn where crammed together sheep pace nervously, and what sounds like a giant breathing bellows outside the doors, stirring up feelings of curious terror.
The interesting thing about Lamb is that there is a constant dread that works its way into the viewer despite a story that is generally abundant in charm and laughs.
Through long stretches of silence and conversations of wanting to travel back in time to the past, Maria and Ingvar establish themselves as a couple that love each other but have a hole in their lives they can’t fill, no matter how many pets they surround themselves with. So when Ada arrives, it’s hardly a moment of shock, and more like a gift from the giant octopus in the sky or whatever. A gift from nature. The gift of a new life.
For those wondering how you could possibly take such a tonally serious film so, well, seriously, you haven’t met Ada, aka, the cutest lamb child to ever appear on screen. The effects team breathes life into Ada in such a way that you’ll often forget there isn’t really a lamb child on screen, and Johannsson does an impeccable job in setting up moments for the audience to squeal with delight and laugh as Ada curiously plays with the family dog, dances, and meets an understandably confused Petur. I’d dare say Ada could even rival Paddington on the cuteness level, except this is not a movie for kids. Not in the slightest.
Lamb is often a filmic version of joy that’s as warm as cuddling a stuffed lamb, but for all of that, it’s also dark as the night surrounding the little farmhouse. The grief portrayed by Rapace is gut-wrenching. Noomi is truly astounding in the role, able to carry the film more through her pained expressions than on the back of her words. Which isn’t to say the dialogue isn’t excellent, because what little talking there is in the script is profoundly moving. Guonason and Haraldsson also nail their roles, their characters each taking a different approach to sadness with Ingvar a pleasant anchor that does his best to keep the mood light, whereas Petur drowns himself in a calming cloud of cigarette smoke. Like nature, this is a family that appears beautiful and serene from the outside, but is full of dangerous secrets on the inside.
And don’t even get me started on the haunting images of sheep following Maria in and out of her dreams. I may never eat lamb again.
In some sense, Lamb is like a weird dream itself, not quite a good or bad one, but one that takes the audience through emotional heights of joy and devastating depths of tragedy. I haven’t laughed, cried, or felt that uncomfortable all during the same film in quite some time, but that’s the power of this odd folk tale. Some of you may find yourselves bored by Lamb’s quiet approach, but it’s that quiet that ultimately makes the film so special. What Johannsson has done is taken an extraordinary event in this family’s life and slowed it down so that instead of getting lost in the excitement, we’re able to live in this happy moment and take with it all of the emotions that come with that happiness being threatened.
Lamb contains some of the purest joy you will see on screen this year, if you give it a chance. It will also anger you, crush you, and surprise you with a shock or two that will send you bah-ing all the way home.
Keep an eye out for more from Johannsson. He has the lamb-chops to continue to wow viewers for years to come. And don’t bother reporting that last pun to the pun police. They’re well aware of my crimes.
Lamb comes to theaters on October 8th from A24.
By Matt Konopka