Bursting on the scene at the 2002 Sundance Festival was Gary Winick, winner of the Best Director award for Tadpole, an enjoyable comedy about a fifteen-year old boy who prefers mature women—his stepmother, in particular. Miramax won the bidding war to distribute the film, now playing nationwide to mixed reviews.
Most who have problems with the film likely have difficulty accepting the premise that a fifteen-year old boy could develop a serious infatuation with his stepmother, and that any forty-year-old woman could be tempted to reciprocate. Scenarios like this one end up being the latest scandal about town, rather than being prime material for a comedy—The Graduate and Rushmore have explored this area. Other film dramas have dealt with the coming of age story, where a young man is introduced to love via an older woman—Summer of '42, for example—or any number of foreign films that introduce young men to adult lust, including the director's cut of Cinema Paradiso, Fellini's Amarcord, and Truffaut's Antoine Doniel series.
Although the film boasts Sigourney Weaver as the middle-aged step mother, Eve, the film's success rests in the capable hands of its young male star, Aaron Stanford, a boyish looking twenty-five-year old who auspiciously debuts as a somewhat believable fifteen-year old named Oscar Grubman. Even the greatest lighting and makeup in the world would be hard pressed to erase ten years off Stanford's frame, and Tadpole is hardly state of the art with its $150,000 budget and digital camera cinematography. Forturnately, Stanford's charisma and natural acting make it easier to suspend belief and accept the film on its own terms.
Atypically interested in French, Voltaire, and women's hands, Oscar declares to his fellow sophomore buddy Charlie (Robert Iler) that there's more to life than “getting laid.” Incredulous that Oscar shows no interest in the high school babe who has the hots for him, Charlie seems closer to high school sophomore mentality and maturity; he's down to earth and instantly accepts Oscar's unrequited love for a more mature and secret (for the time being) woman—it's still sex in his eyes. More developed scenes between these two characters could help establish the incongruity of Oscar's friendship with such an immature buddy while he's mentally light years ahead of him.
Oscar's clueless father, Stanley (John Ritter), attempts to interest his prodigious son in a girl his age, manipulating him into walking a family friend home after their Thanksgiving dinner. Oscar humorously hails a taxi six blocks from her home and heads to a local bar, surprisingly without even getting carded. Eve's best friend Diane (Bebe Neuwirth) rescues Oscar from getting busted for drunkenness, but complicates his life by seducing him with a combination back massage and sight of his stepmother's scarf. Oscar's challenge and comic situation revolve around his concealing the one night stand and trying to find the right moment to reveal his love for his stepmother.
Two scenes work especially well. The dinner scene especially stands out when Oscar, his parents, and Diane all eat out at a classy Manhattan restaurant. It's fun to watch Oscar squirm as his clueless father attempts to query about the mystery girlfriend and where he had spent Thanksgiving night, and Neuwirth hilariously brings laughter without saying much. Her eyes dance mischievously and comic timing using wine drinking as a motif work perfectly in this scene. The other memorable scene plays out Oscar's awkward expressions of love to good effects, and Weaver shows her stuff when she finally realizes that Oscar isn't really in love with her best friend—brief flashes of recognition, confusion, and resolution all pass through her eyes, and are captured by the camera.
Not everything works as well. Working on the limited budget with a two-week shooting schedule doesn't allow for perfection, and some of the camera work appears sloppy, a few scenes seem too familiar, and the ending seems a bit rushed. But at a fast-paced seventy-eight minutes, Tadpole unpretentiously entertains and introduces a bright new charismatic star in Aaron Stanford, who holds up well with veteran actresses Neuwirth and Weaver. You don't even have to read Voltaire, understand French, or secretly cherish pedophilic desires to relate to these characters, either. The original film works as light comedy, certainly worth a DVD rental.