Tadpole takes a premise that could be controversial and renders it as harmless as a TV movie of the week. Directed by Gary Winick (The Tic Code, Sweet Nothing) from a script by Niels Mueller and Heather McGowan, and shot on digital video in two weeks, it’s a cozy little movie that has all its edges beveled, leaving it neat and charming if you’re in a responsive mood.
“Tadpole” is the nickname of 15-year-old Oscar Grubman (Aaron Stanford), an emotionally precocious son of Manhattan’s prosperous Upper East Side, prematurely handsome and brimming with moony post-adolescent seriousness. In the movie’s opening scenes, Oscar’s budding suavity is contrasted with his prep-school roommate and confidant, Charlie (Robert Iler, “The Sopranos”), a pudgy lummox with all the usual 15-year-old interests. The pair take a train home for Thanksgiving and, responding to Charlie’s horny questioning, Oscar declares that no girl is a match for his beloved Eve (Sigourney Weaver) who, we soon learn, is his middle-aged stepmother.
This isn’t as seamy as it might seem, since for Oscar sex isn’t quite the issue. Though he’s given to quoting Voltaire (a good source for widely applicable citations) and offering up dubious insights about the revealing nature of women’s hands, his cloudy fixations are decidedly not carnal. What Oscar is infatuated with is his own developing aesthetic sense. He ignores the cute girl who’s obviously interested in him, preferring the more complicated pleasure of contemplating Eve, who, viewed from the distance of age, is like a painting that has gained an extra layer of seductiveness after having been placed in a museum. It’s not so much Eve as his awareness of his ability to appreciate her that’s giving him his buzz.
Meanwhile, Eve is oblivious to Oscar’s fixation, as is his father, Stanley (John Ritter, solidifying his after-sitcom career as an interesting character actor), and much of the film’s low-keyed comedy centers around their misinterpretation of his lovesick attitude and his fumbling attempts to signal his interest to his stepmom. The fly in the ointment of Oscar’s platonic reverie comes in the form of Eve’s best friend, Diane (Bebe Neuwirth), who takes advantage of the poor boy when he’s had too much to drink. Now Oscar is saddled with trying to connect with Eve while trying to hide that he’s slept with Diane, a task complicated by her tendency toward boozy, talkative nonchalance.
There’s a little dishonesty in the way things are presented here, though it’s nothing too serious. Much is made of the fact that Eve and Diane are both 40-ish ex-schoolmates — and while Neuwirth is in her early 40s, Weaver is actually in her early 50s. One suspects that her character has been aged down, in part, because the 40-15 combo is somewhat more palatable than a 50-15 combo, no matter what the gender involved, and so more appropriate for a movie that wants to be likable rather than disconcerting. If Weaver’s real age were acknowledged, it would edge the movie toward Harold and Maude territory, minus that movie’s terminal cuteness. 40-15 still has the potential for some bittersweet interaction, but 50-15 is just creepy (though to confuse matters more, 15-year-old Oscar is played by 23-year-old Stanford). Winick and company really know how to hedge their bets.
Tadpole was a big crowd-pleaser at Sundance earlier this year and one can see why — it offers an ostensibly edgy scenario in a manner guaranteed not to ruffle any feathers. Oscar never seems like a real 15-year-old and the film’s ending, which signals the inconsequential nature of his passing fancy, doesn’t seem like a real ending. And yet its direction (intimate without being pushy), its script (which avoids a lurking preciousness) and Weaver’s performance as a vaguely discontented woman of substance, makes for a mildly entertaining 77 minutes. If that’s what you’re in the mood for.
Opening Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.