Sure, it won awards and caused a stir at Sundance, but is this a great movie? No, just a passable one (albeit threaded with superb performances) that manages to take a potentially tasteless, even explosive, topic — a 15 year old boy in love with his 40-something step-mother (Sigourney Weaver), who finds himself embroiled, accidentally, in a comic affair with her similarly aged best friend (Bebe Neuwirth) — and makes it at least seem tasteful while it’s onscreen. (Afterwards, you have to wonder how this would play were it a 15 year old girl and a 40-something man, or a same sex couple …) What’s even more remarkable is that Tadpole accomplishes this under dire technical circumstances. Director Gary Winick shot his film for peanuts (the acknowledgements confirm that much of the film was done by begging, borrowing, and getting SAG to let the actors perform for less than scale) on digital video. Films like The Anniversary Party and the various Dogme films have paved the way, but Tadpole can’t be called any kind of an advance in the medium. Tadpole seems technically cruder than the digital films that predate it. Many of the interior shots are downright murky and look like … well … like video. The sound mix is wanting (the balance of dialogue and music is out of kilter and there’s too much extraneous noise). The hand-held camerawork is far too shaky for its own good, and pointlessly so, compared to, say, the deliberately unsteady look of Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives. In the Allen picture, it imbues the film with the feeling of documentary realism and urgency. In Tadpole we get the sneaky hunch that the filmmakers didn’t have time to set up a tripod. What’s left, then, to make Tadpole worth your while? Only the splendid performances of a top flight cast and an insightful screenplay that wouldn’t particularly shame Woody Allen. The script definitely deals from a stacked deck, inherent in a movie where you’re supposed to accept the trysting of an underage boy and a middle aged woman. But that doesn’t mean the film is cheating, since it’s essential to the film that the lead is a character described as “a 40 year old in a 15 year old’s body.” Oscar (played with the gravity, arrogance and about half the charm the role requires, by newcomer Aaron Stanford) both is and isn’t a very unusual teenager. Your average teenager doesn’t listen to Charles Aznavour records and spout Voltaire, but there’s nothing more gravely serious and pompous than a serious-minded teenager. That’s something the screenwriters know and peg with almost alarming accuracy They’ve gotten all of it down, except for one thing: The pain. The pain of that end-of-the-world seriousness is curiously missing and is finally what keeps the film from overcoming its technical limitations and acheiving greatness. Very likely it would have been more than the slight, 77 minute running time could have supported, but it does make the film more of a souffle than the three course meal it might have been. One more quibble is that Winick used a couple of 30 year old Paul Simon and David Bowie songs to convey the sense of a contemporary 15 year old accepting his contemporariness — I don’t think so. Tadpole has more than its share of problems, true, but they are problems that can be borne.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke