directed by Gary Winick
(Miramax, 2002)

Oscar "The Grubber" Grubman is in love. The problem is, he's in love with his stepmother, Eve (Sigourney Weaver).

Still, Oscar (Aaron Stanford), a 15-year-old prep-school student, is determined to do something about it, and he announces his intentions to his best friend, Charlie (Robert Der), on their way home from school for Thanksgiving break.

The course of true love never runs smoothly, however, not even in independent films with big-name casts, and there are 78 minutes of pure hell awaiting Oscar -- and 78 minutes of hellish fun awaiting the audience -- when the all-too-earnest suitor gets back to his father's East Side apartment in New York City.

Oscar, you see, is far from your standard-issue 15-year-old. He speaks fluent French, prefers classical music to pop and venerates Voltaire, whom he considers one funny guy. He does have one thing going for him, however: older women are just crazy about him, especially Eve's best friend, Diane (Bebe Neuwirth). And before you or he knows it, he's carrying around more phone numbers than AT&T.

Tadpole is the brainchild of independent film director-producer-writer-editor Gary Winick. To call it his breakthrough film might be a bit postmature. A few years back he took two Best Feature awards at the Berlin Film Festival with his 1998 flick The Tic Code, a tale of a gifted 10-year-old musician who prefers to steer his own course through the music world.

With Tadpole, Winick has garnered even more notice, winning the Director's Award at the Sundance Film Festival and getting nominated for a Grand Jury Prize -- all for $150,000, a budget that makes My Big Fat Greek Wedding look like Titanic.

That budget, which hardly buys cinematic shoestrings at today's prices, leads to Winick using many "indie" conventions, including location shooting, claustrophobic sets and lots of hand-held camera shots -- none jarring, but some a bit shaky.

But Winick's dedication to his art and his vision lead to something else: erudite dialogue, well-staged setpieces and gentle, loving portraits of a tiny group of people trying to do their best with very delicate, and sometimes hysterically funny, situations.

Of these, the best are Oscar's attempts to sprout instant sideburns, inspired by the unexpected revelation that Eve was an Elvis fan in her youth, and the climactic dinner scene, in which Oscar attempts every wrong move possible to keep Eve and his father (John Ritter) from finding out about his one-night stand with Diane.

The key to much of the fun lies in the understated performances of Weaver, Neuwirth and Ritter, whose cluelessness knows no bounds and who delivers what could be the strangest Thanksgiving toast ever attempted by man or Columbia University history prof.

Neuwirth, who won the Seattle Film Critics' award for best supporting actress, is just as much fun as the sexually overactive 40ish chiropractor whose help is exactly what Oscar doesn't need at this moment in his quest.

Add to that some healthy dashes of Mozart, Chopin and Paul Simon, plus some timely interruptions from M. Voltaire, and you have an international feast for the eyes and ears, served up in a timely fashion, and all in surprisingly good taste.

More than that for $150,000 you're just not going to get.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 25 October 2003

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