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Tadpole

Tadpole
reviewed by Greta Christina

Hm. Interesting concept. Sort of the anti-"American Pie." Tadpole is a movie about a fifteen-year-old boy's sexual desires, but it doesn't involve boobie jokes, wiener jokes, toilet humor, public de-pantsing, wet T-shirts, or any other staples of American teenage nitwit sex humor. It's a movie about a fifteen-year-old boy who's thoughtful and sensitive, who speaks fluent French and reads Voltaire -- and who nevertheless has intense, overpowering sexual desires that, like those of so many fifteen-year-old boys, seem to him like a matter of life or death. Tadpole is an interesting examination of teenage sexuality, one that doesn't assume that teenagers are all drooling idiots with hormones for brains. It's also a very flawed movie, awkward and artificial in many, many places. But it's still trying to do something smart and unusual, and it succeeds at least half of the time. And therefore, in my book, it's well worth a look.

Oscar (Aaron Stanford), the fifteen-year-old boy in question, is a well-mannered, well-read, intelligent, romantic, inordinately good-looking young fellow who discusses philosophy, adores women's hands, is more interested in love than sex -- and finds women in their forties to be infinitely more desireable than teenage girls. (I suspect that some viewers will find him to be a tasty little petit-four, while others will find him an insufferably pompous little git who needs to be slapped.) As the movie opens, Oscar is on the train home from prep school for Thanksgiving, trying to explain the appeal of older women to his baffled roommate. As it soon turns out, there's one particular older woman his soul yearns for -- and alas, it's his stepmother, Eve (Sigourney Weaver). But Eve's best friend Diane (Bebe Neuwirth) has a sharp eye, for people in general and for men in particular; she sees what's going on in Oscar's head and heart and parts below, and she soon catches him in a weak (a.k.a. drunk) moment, and seduces him. Or he seduces her. Or they seduce each other. Anyway, they tumble into bed, and many wacky complications and soulful moments ensue.

The thing I like about all this is that it takes teenage sexuality seriously. Sure, the movie is a comedy, with the soul of a French sex farce in an indie-American body. But it still takes Oscar seriously. It sees him as a person, with quirks and ideas, aspirations and soft spots. It also sees him as a fifteen-year-old boy, who, however dreamy and philosophical he may be about it, is obsessed with women and with boinking. More unusually, it sees these two things as compatible, integrated, aspects of a whole person at a particular moment in his life -- a moment that's no less important or real for being youthful and in flux. The movie looks at the sexuality of a fifteen-year-old boy, and however much humor it may find in his situation, it refuses to make him an object of ridicule. It recognizes that intelligent, contemplative adults were probably intelligent, contemplative teenagers at one time -- and it recognizes that, just as with adults, a young person's sexual desire doesn't automatically detract from their intelligence. In fact, it can enhance it, adding a level of depth and passion.

The trouble is that there are so many false notes. The script needed at least one more rewrite, and a lot of the dialogue is just fake, fake, fake -- not only about of how people speak, but about what they say, and when, and why. Several scenes felt completely unnatural, like they were there because the writers needed the twist or revelation to happen, not because the characters would have actually said or done what they said or did. (My friend Chip thinks I'm not being fair here -- he says the movie is farce, and farce is by its nature artificial. Maybe so. I still found it irritating.) So much of the movie didn't feel real -- and that made it damned difficult to tell whether Oscar felt real. I never did decide if he could be a real person in the actual world, or if he was just a figment of the writers' fevered imaginations. Since I liked so much of what the movie was showing about his sexuality, not being able to trust it was doubly frustrating.

And I have to tell you that I found the ending annoying -- and therefore, of course, I have to tell you what the ending is. So here it comes. Consider yourself warned. After many twists and heartbreaks, Oscar realizes that (a) his thing for older women is a dead end, and (b) girls his own age aren't so bad after all. Now, this in itself isn't such a terrible thing, or even an unlikely thing. But it had a "Problem solved" air that I found far too neat. They set up this complicated, interesting character with this complicated, interesting problem, and then tied it up in this neat, deus-ex-machina package. He now has normal desires for girls his own age instead of troublesome desires for women in their forties. Happy ending. Game over.

I found this even more annoying because I think Oscar was right the first time -- the older women he lusts for are way more gorgeous than the teenage cupcakes his friends and family keep shoving at him. I do think he was an idiot to moon after the somewhat chilly Eve when he had the earthy, raunchy, knows-what-time-of-day-it-is Diane chasing his tail (especially a Diane played by Bebe Neuwirth in a leather skirt -- yum). But I thought his "problem" revealed his sensitivity and perception far more than any of his quacking about Voltaire. And I was sad to see the movie solve this problem by abandoning his quirkiness and making him grow more ordinary.


Copyright 2002 Greta Christina. Originally published in the Spectator.

     

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