USA 2002 : Gary WINICK : 79 mins

Amusing but very minor – and conspicuously short – coming-of-age comedy, very much in the vein of Igby Goes Down. Like Burr Steers’ film, Tadpole takes place among the rich families of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and both movies’ titles also happen to feature the childhood nickname of their teenage heroes. 15-year-old Oscar Grubman (Aaron Stanford) – known as ‘Tadpole’ because of his French mother – returns home from prep school for Thanksgiving with his history-professor dad (John Ritter) and biologist stepmother Eve (Sigourney Weaver). Alarmingly bright – he’s seldom seen without his Voltaire – and socially confident for his age, Oscar has time for girls his own age. He prefers older women – specifically Eve, with whom he is seriously infatuated. As she’s apparently off-limits, however, Oscar settles for a fling with Eve’s best friend, chiropractor Diane (Bebe Neuwirth). Complications ensue.

Heather McGowan and Niels Mueller’s script may remind audiences of two previous ‘transgressive’ romances, one real and one fictional. Geographically and sociologically, we’re firmly within Woody Allen territory – and though director Winick punctuates the action with stark white-on-black Voltaire quotations (a la Hannah and Her Sisters), it isn’t so much Allen’s movies, as his real-life relationship with stepdaughter Soon-Yi which Tadpole seems to partly replay. In terms of cinema, the spectre of Rushmore (in which brainy schoolboy Max Fischer lusts forlornly after his considerably older teacher) is the most naggingly insistent of the film’s many direct forebears – though, as someone actually does remark, “It is all very The Graduate. except Oscar hasn’t graduated.”

The performances are solid across the board, with Stanford – 23 at the time of shooting, and subsequently to become Pyro in X-Men 2 – coping well with a very demanding role. But, again like Igby Goes Down, Tadpole is never able to develop much character of its own – many of the jokes are simply too familiar and predictable (as when, during a tennis game, Oscar is hit in the forehead with a ball) and the script’s second half feels distinctly underpowered, zipping towards its uninspired anti-climax. Director Winick does a fair job, without bringing anything new to what’s suddenly become a well-worn poor-little-rich-kid genre. Among many hackneyed choices, his (crucial) last shot is especially tired: a close-up of Oscar’s wistful face, looking through a train window (to the almost inevitable accompaniment of Bowie’s ‘Changes’).

The most noteworthy aspect of the whole film may be that it was shot entirely on cheap digital-video cameras – in Europe, arthouse audiences have become used to the DV look, while even multiplex crowds weren’t put off by the rough-grained shaky-cams of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. The Blair Witch Project apart, it’s still unusual for a commercially-released film to be made on DV – Tadpole made little money at the box office. This shouldn’t be blamed on the cameras used, however – there just isn’t enough going on in terms of script or direction for this tadpole ever to have turned into a frog, let alone a prince.

12th June, 2003
(seen same day: Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle-upon-Tyne)

by Neil Young