Fri, Jul 11, 2003 - Page 20 News List

Forbidden love

The relationship between a 15-year-old boy and 40-something women has its moments -- but not enough

By Stephen Holden  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Tadpole explores the love between a boy and his stepmother.


Oscar Grubman (Aaron Stanford), the intellectually precocious 15-year-old protagonist of Tadpole, is about as close to a contemporary descendant of J. D. Salinger's beloved preppie misfit, Holden Caulfield, as has ever been brought to the screen. A fragile wisp of a movie (it's only 77 minutes long), Tadpole, whose title refers to Oscar's boyish nickname, observes his romantic growing pains during an emotionally fraught Thanksgiving break from private school.

At its most endearing, the film conveys the same intense identification with Oscar's thoughts and mood swings that Salinger brought to his legendary character, and its adolescent-eyed view of Manhattan's Upper East Side as a glowing, mysterious wonderland is deeply Salinger-esque.

Were it not for the charm of Stanford, who is making his feature-film debut in the movie, Oscar might have emerged as an insufferably pretentious hothouse flower. But the actor (23 when the movie was made) flawlessly captures his character's aching, doe-eyed sincerity and yearning goodness.

Oscar has little tolerance for his fellow teenagers' tastes in pop culture and on the train into Manhattan, he appears oblivious to the flirtatious signals flashing from an attractive schoolmate whom he dismisses as too immature to be girlfriend material because she has babylike hands. An ardent Francophile, he loves to quote Voltaire as much for the sound as for the sense. And the movie is studded with Voltaire quotations, inserted as inter-titles, that quickly become an annoying affectation.

He also imagines himself a connoisseur of women: older women, to be precise. But that taste proves the source of Oscar's heartache. Of all the older women in the world to covet, the one for whom he has developed a consuming passion is his attractive stepmother, Eve (Sigourney Weaver). A medical researcher whose marriage to Oscar's father, Stanley (John Ritter), an academic, has drifted into the doldrums, Eve is beautiful, cultivated, self-possessed and 40-something. And as the camera studies her through Oscar's adoring eyes, you understand exactly why he would prefer her to someone his own age.

Film Notes


Directed by: Gary Winick

Starring: Sigourney Weaver (Eve), Aaron Stanford (Oscar), John Ritter (Stanley), Bebe Neuwirth (Diane) and Robert Iler (Charlie)

Running time: 77 minutes

Taiwan Release: Today

Tadpole, directed by Gary Winick from a screenplay by Niels Mueller and Heather McGowan, was an audience favorite when it was shown earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. Shot in just two weeks with a hand-held digital camera, the movie often looks frayed around the edges. Yet it has a soulful heart and a clear grasp of its rarefied milieu (Manhattan upper-level moneyed academia).

The film's chief pleasures derive from the delicate interactions of Oscar, Eve and Diane (Bebe Neuwirth), a chiropractor who is Eve's mischievously sexy best friend. The core of a story, which suggests a refined French farce about intergenerational sex and lies (but no videotape), finds Oscar sleeping with Diane but feeling terrible about it afterward because he has betrayed his true love.

That tryst takes place when Diane offers Oscar, who is severely hung over after a night of self-pitying carousal, a therapeutic massage. A friendly post-rubdown nuzzle shades into a serious kiss that leads them directly to bed. Returning home in the morning, Oscar lies about his whereabouts the night before. And in the movie's wittiest scene, set in a restaurant where Oscar is having dinner with Eve, Stanley and Diane, he frantically tries to prevent Diane from drinking too much and possibly spilling the beans in a moment of giddiness.

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