Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) live a quiet life of solitude in the Icelandic wilderness. The couple raise livestock, crops and fish for a living. Their days are defined by the tasks of rural life, which they happily share. Both feed the horses, cook the meals and shear the sheep. It’s an egalitarian relationship not defined by the traditional household roles. Their humble farm sits nestled between two mountains. If you ever get lost, Ingvar likes to say, just look toward the mountain and you’ll eventually find home. But beneath the simplicity of their comfortable monotony, something seems to be missing. Someone they can raise, for whom they can care.
Until one Christmas Eve, one of their sheep gives birth to a lamb of strange design. Its little body is that of a human child, save for a hoofed right hand and its head — which remains that of a lamb, despite seemingly human intelligence. It’s a bizarre wrench in the couple’s orderly existence. The humans are immediately smitten and raise little Ada, as they name her, as their own.
Lamb is simultaneously one of 2021’s funniest and most nerve-wracking films. It’s a folk tale about the draw of parenthood that constantly surprises; it’s also a movie about two humans raising a lamb-child as their own in the most banal of ways. They bathe her, feed her spaghetti, take her out in their fishing boat. Ada behaves like a human child except when she doesn’t. The more mundane it gets, the funnier it becomes. When Ada the Lamb-child wears a little coat and rain boots? Nothing this year has been so inherently silly, so lovely and sweet.
Director Valdimar Jóhannsson and his co-writer, Sjón, create tension through that normalcy, though. We see the love shared between Maria, Ingvar and Ada, and we know it can’t last. It’s unnatural. Strange. The other sheep don’t recognize Ada as a human. In fact, her mother sheep mournfully brays for her child until Maria, possessive, shoots her in the head and buries her in a shallow grave. It’s the sort of original sin that needs answering. There are signs of dark tidings, too, surrounding the happy domesticity of the trio. Dead animals, bad weather and the unwanted return of Ingvar’s questionable brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) all spell doom. Pétur, of course, thinks it’s all pretty weird. How did this strange kid get here? It’s hard not to root for this little family of three. But the hammer has to fall, right?
The answer is best left for those who venture into Lamb with an open mind and open heart. It’s an incredible, unique and ultimately simple tale. Some critics have complained that it is slow, but they’re utterly wrong: It’s fascinating and funny from the get-go, an unforgettably strange vision of parenthood.