"Tadpole" takes a premise that could be controversial and renders it as harmless as a TV movie of the week. Directed by Gary Winick ("The Tic Code," "Sweet Nothing") from a script by Niels Mueller and Heather McGowan, and shot on digital video in two weeks, it's a cozy little movie that has all its edges beveled, leaving it neat and charming if you're in a responsive mood.
"Tadpole" is the nickname of 15-year-old Oscar Grubman (Aaron Stanford), an emotionally precocious son of Manhattan's prosperous Upper East Side. Prematurely handsome and brimming with moony post-adolescent seriousness, Oscar has a budding suavity that puts him in contrast to his prep-school roommate and confidant, Charlie ("The Sopranos'" Robert Iler), a pudgy lummox with all the usual 15-year-old interests. In response to Charlie's horny questioning, Oscar declares that no girl is a match for his beloved Eve (Sigourney Weaver) -- who, we soon learn, is his middle-aged stepmother.
This isn't as seamy as it might seem. Though Oscar is given to quoting Voltaire and offering up dubious insights about women's hands, his fixations are decidedly noncarnal. Instead, he's infatuated with is his own developing aesthetic sense. He ignores a cute girl who's obviously interested in him to contemplate Eve, who, viewed from the distance of age, is like a painting that has gained an extra layer of seductiveness after having been placed in a museum.
Eve is oblivious to Oscar's fixation, as is his father, Stanley (John Ritter, solidifying his after-sitcom career as an interesting character actor). Much of the film's low-key comedy centers on their misinterpretation of his lovesick attitude and his fumbling attempts to signal his interest to his stepmom. The fly in the ointment is Eve's best friend, Diane (Bebe Neuwirth), who takes advantage of the poor boy when he's had too much to drink. As he tries to connect with Eve, Oscar must also attempt to hide that he's slept with Diane -- a task complicated by her tendency toward boozy, talkative nonchalance.
There's a little dishonesty in the way things are presented here, though it's nothing too serious. Much is made of the fact that Eve and Diane are both 40-ish ex-schoolmates, yet Weaver is actually in her early 50s. One suspects that her character has been aged down, in part, because the 40-15 combo is somewhat more palatable than a 50-15 pairing, which is just creepy. Were Weaver's real age to be acknowledged, it would edge the movie toward "Harold and Maude" territory. To confuse matters more, 15-year-old Oscar is played by 23-year-old Stanford. Winick and company really know how to hedge their bets.
"Tadpole" was a big crowd-pleaser at Sundance this year, and one can see why -- it offers an ostensibly edgy scenario in a manner that's guaranteed not to ruffle any feathers. Yet its direction (intimate without being pushy), its script (which avoids a lurking preciousness) and Weaver's performance as a vaguely discontented woman of substance make for a mildly entertaining 77 minutes, if that's what you're in the mood for.