'Tadpole' swims in troubling waters


Tadpole, now in its seventh week at area movie theaters, is a charming, unpretentious comedy about love, longing and statutory rape.

The film is set in New York over a particularly turbulent Thanksgiving weekend, during which 15-year-old Oscar Grubman (Aaron Stanford) puckers up with his stepmother, Eve (Sigourney Weaver) and has a one-night stand with Eve's best friend, Diane (Bebe Neuwirth.)

I saw it a few weeks ago, and I've been fuming ever since. It's not so much the subject matter that's troubling -- kids have been getting crushes on adults since time immemorial -- it's that the filmmakers don't seem to realize that there's anything wrong when adults return the affection, and it gets physical.

We're meant to see the film as a light romantic comedy. We're meant to see it in part as a feminist fable: a mature woman, disillusioned with men her own age, takes control of her sex life. We're meant to understand that Oscar's tussle between the sheets helps him grow up. For instance, the film's name (and Oscar's nickname) is "Tadpole." By implication, a kiss from a beautiful woman will turn this amphibian into a prince. The film even has given rise to a new cultural expression much bandied about on talk shows: "tadpoling," referring to romances between older women and much younger men.

What we are not meant to see is Oscar as he actually is: the victim of a crime.

Sex between adults and minors is prohibited in every state in the union. The age of consent most frequently is 18; in New York (where the film is set) it is 17; and in Maryland it is 16. Nowhere is it 15.

Just ask former Carroll County substitute teacher Kimberly Merson, who pleaded guilty last year to four counts of felony child sexual abuse after she admitted having sexual contact with nine male students aged 15 to 17. Merson, then 24, was sentenced to 18 months in jail.

Confronting the issue

Part of what is so disturbing about Tadpole is that it seems to be trying to flout the law. Making Oscar a mere two years older wouldn't have changed the plot or tone. It still would be a coming-of-age tale, and, yes, the affair between a 17-year-old and a woman more than twice his age still would be sleazy. But it wouldn't be felonious. It wouldn't come so perilously close to advocating romances between kids and adults.

Director Gary Winick and the actors have said in published interviews that they were aware of this pitfall, but surmounted it by making Oscar wiser than his years -- "a 40-year-old inside a 15-year-old body" -- and by confronting the issue head-on.

Only, no one in a 15-year-old body has the life experience that real 40-year-olds rely on to navigate sexual skirmishes. It's simply not a fair contest; the odds (and the power) are too skewed in favor of the older partner. It's like putting a bantamweight in the ring with a heavyweight.

Nor do the characters in the movie confront the statutory rape issue head-on, as the moviemakers claim. Diane feels so little guilt about her tryst that she boasts of it to her women friends, and encourages one to give Oscar her phone number.

Granted, after the liaison is uncovered during a drunken dinner, Eve gives her longtime best friend a stern talking-to. She tells Diane that she was "taking advantage" of Oscar. (Note, however, that neither she nor the boy's father calls the police.)

Diane defends herself by claiming that Eve is jealous because she feels a void in her own marriage. She implies that in her deepest heart, Eve, too, wishes that she had a fresh, idealistic, romantic young lover.

And the sad thing is, she's right.

The movie's climax occurs when Eve and Oscar share a most unplatonic kiss. True, Eve backs off -- but she cites the risk of such an encounter to her marriage, not her stepson. And when Oscar tries to explain how he became entangled with Diane, Eve tells him: "It's none of my business."

Sure it is. And isn't an identical practice -- turning a blind eye to the sexual exploitation of teen-agers -- precisely what has gotten the Roman Catholic Church into so much hot water? If we chuckle at the film, how can we condemn the priests?

Tragedy of 'Lolita'

Tadpole is not the first movie to focus on sex between adults and minors, and in fact, has been compared to the most famous movie treatment of that taboo. In Lolita, based on the novel by Vladimir Nabokov, the main character, Humbert Humbert, becomes enthralled with the 12-year-old nymphet Lolita, and schemes to become her legal guardian.

But while Lolita is a study of obsession, it is not a celebration of it. Humbert is portrayed as mentally unbalanced, the survivor of previous breakdowns caused by the death of his childhood love, while Lolita is an orphan desperate for affection. They know their affair is wrong, and flee to avoid being discovered.

The novel ends tragically. Lolita, married to someone else at age 18, dies in childbirth -- and it's pathetically clear that she thinks of Humbert still as a father figure. Humbert himself is on trial for murdering the playwright Clare Quilty, who unbeknownst to him, also had been Lolita's lover. Viewers don't come away from this movie humming a happy tune.

In a more contemporary example, Lovely & Amazing also features a subplot about a fling between a 17-year-old boy and a 40-something woman, but writer and director Nicole Holofcener handles that relationship far more appropriately. (In California, where the film is set, the age of consent is 18.)

The consequences of the affair for Michelle, played by Catherine Keener, are swift and severe. The boy's mother calls the police, and Michelle is hauled off in handcuffs. She faces criminal charges, a nasty divorce, and the possibility of losing custody of her young daughter.

And yet, Lovely & Amazing is rated R, which means that no one under age 17 is allowed to view the film without adult supervision. Tadpole is rated PG-13, which means that any child of any age will be admitted at any time, with or without their parents.

Which film would you rather have your tadpole see?

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