Steppin' Out

A boy desires his stepmom in the digital video Tadpole

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The advent of digital filmmaking has been essentially a good thing, allowing cameras to go places their larger, celluloid-spooling cousins cannot; generally requiring less specialized lighting; and, above all, making it affordable to put together a film while maxing out only one credit card. Sure, for every The Celebration you get 10 Mifunes, but along with that comes the promise that maybe you, too, can be a director one day. There is one small deficit to the technology, however: With the exception of digital films shot on the high-end Sony 24P HD camera (Session 9, Attack of the Clones), digital video still frequently looks like crap.

Such is the case with Gary Winick's Tadpole, which admittedly overcomes its visual hideousness with a sharp script and strong performances. Still, Winick seems unaware of how bad it looks. Although it has been undergoing some final tweaks since the screening, they don't seem to be cosmetic, mostly focusing on editing, and the trailer doesn't indicate that any visual enhancement has been made.

Tadpole is one of the inaugural productions of Winick's InDigEnt film company, and he hopes to encourage more filmmakers to challenge themselves with low-budget dig-vid films like this one under his auspices, much as Lars von Trier's Dogme 95 philosophy was supposed to do. But again, Gary should perhaps remember that most of the Dogme movies were ugly to look at, embarrassingly pretentious and self-consciously "artsy" (a weird fixation on retarded people as subject matter didn't enhance the cause any), with only The Celebration truly transcending the mold.

To enjoy Tadpole, you'll have to deal with wide shots that occasionally reduce character faces into pure pixelation. You'll have to accept that the color scheme is going to be mostly dull and that none of the visuals will dazzle you or even particularly interest you. Fortunately, that doesn't really matter. This is one of those films that gets by on script and character alone, and the dig-vid look ultimately gives the piece a home-movie feel that adds a voyeuristic level to the proceedings.

Impressive newcomer Aaron Stanford, who resembles an amalgamation of Topher Grace and Hayden Christensen, plays fifteen-year-old boarding-school student Oscar, also known as Tadpole, possibly because his mother is French (i.e., a "frog"), or because he's metaphorically swimming around trying to grow up, or even perhaps because tadpoles look like sperm -- it's an open-ended interpretation.

Tadpole isn't your typical kid -- he looks 23 (because Stanford is); he quotes Voltaire, who, he insists, is a comedian (as does the movie, with various laugh-getting ironic scene-headings courtesy of the French philosopher); he drinks heavily after convincingly persuading a bartender that he is in fact 40 years old; and he wants to date middle-aged women, specifically his own stepmother, Eve (Sigourney Weaver). Home for the holidays, he intends to finally declare his love but encounters inevitable complications when Eve's best friend, Diane (Bebe Neuwirth), becomes part of the dysfunctional triangle.

Comedic misunderstandings ensue, sort of like Three's Company with an edge, a feeling only exacerbated by the appearance of John Ritter as Tadpole's dad, playing it more effeminately flamboyant than he did as a gay man in Sling Blade. At least one metaphor is a little too much: Eve is a cardiologist, so she gets to casually say things such as, "The heart is simple. Fixing it is complicated." But overall the wit and timing are sharp, as in the hilarious dinner scene where everything comes to a head (reminiscent of similar scenes in movies such as Mrs. Doubtfire, only funny), and in Diane's observation that being 40 isn't so bad, except everyone you know seems kinda tired."

The theme of older woman getting it on with teen (or immediately post-teen) males seems to be part of the zeitgeist right now, what with Y Tu Mamá También, Lovely and Amazing, The Good Girl and now this, all coming out within the space of two months. We're fortunate that thus the subject has been treated with intelligent humor, but who knows? This could become a larger trend. Anyone up for a Jerry Bruckheimer production teaming Freddie Prinze Jr. and Angela Lansbury?

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