Opinion

Lamb is the bonkers new A24 horror film you won't stop talking about

The debut feature from director Valdimar Jóhannsson will unsettle — and twistedly confirm — your 'fur baby' obsession

There's a moment in the bonkers new A24 horror film Lamb — and you'll know it exactly when you see it — that ruins the phrase "fur baby" forever. 

Or, at least, it ruins it assuming you were someone who could hear "fur baby" without cringing already. I was never one of those people. I do have an entire photo roll prepped on my phone for whichever unfortunate stranger next makes small talk by asking if I have pets, yet I'd never unduly elevate my obsession with my two cats by labeling it maternal.

But while Lamb deals with the story of two grieving parents, it also winks at a position in which many electively childless millennials, like myself, have found ourselves: projecting some innate parental instinct onto the only small, adorable, vulnerable beings currently in our lives. 

Set on an isolated sheep farm in Iceland and centered on a young, childless couple, Lamb is a sparse, haunting first feature from director Valdimar Jóhannsson, a student of the bleak Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr. Jóhannsson co-wrote the screenplay with the mononymous Icelandic writer Sjón, who is sometimes floated as a possible future Nobel Prize laureate, and their collaboration is more in a psychological, folkloric register than an out-and-out "horror."

That said, there's no getting around it: Lamb is totally nuts. It seems destined to achieve a cult following after its release this Friday, a loyalty it will significantly owe to its major twist about 40 minutes in which elevates the story to the WTF-levels of A24's other horror hits like Hereditary, The Witch, and Midsommar.

It's best to experience that twist yourself, unspoiled, so in broad strokes: The central couple, María (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snaer Gudnason) begin to project their parental desires onto a deformed lamb born in their flock. And while that leaves one character to utter the quote that really ought to be the movie's tagline — "What the f--k is this?" — I found my own judgment of them complicated by how much the farm's sheep (fluffy, round, food-motivated) reminded me of my cats.

In fact, for all my frustration with María and Ingvar for making the ultimate horror movie mistake (not dropping everything and running the instant things got weird), I had to admit I'd called my cats my "children" in a conversation with my mother just a few weeks earlier. As in: "I know I can't stop talking about them, but they really are like our children!" (What the f--k is that?)

As embarrassing as it is, my thinking isn't unusual. As many as 67 percent of Americans "see the pet as part of the family." "While statistics are spotty," City Journal observes, "the cultural signs of a shift toward the parenting of pets in major cities are evident in apartment ads, park design, retail mixes, and the explosion of services catering to the 'fur-baby economy.' In the absence of kids, a dog or cat serves as something like a starter family." LendingTree even discovered that some 42 percent of millennials would be willing to go into debt for their animals. 

It's neither surprising nor news that millennials are having fewer children: The economy is screwed; the environment is doomed; there's a raging pandemic; and we've culturally moved beyond the heteronormative go-to-college-get-married-have-babies pipeline. But what may be more surprising is the way animals can assuage a parenting instinct in the absence of actual parenting. It's a phenomenon called "alloparenting" — when individuals other than the biological mother or father care for an offspring — and, in humans, scientists think it's connected to our evolutionary development of care for other people's kids. Babies are "so vulnerable and needy that our species would never had survived unless every adult member of a human troop was willing help take care of them," author Abigail Marsh, a psychology and neuroscience professor, wrote at The Washington Post

It turns out we're not very good at discriminating by species. "[H]umans, like all mammals, are neurologically equipped to find our own babies adorable and to want to love and care for them," Marsh explained. Only we don't stop there: Our "oxytocin-soaked brains are so attuned to the pleasing features of babies — small body size, a large head, large eyes, and a round appearance — that we yearn to care for nearly anything that shares similar features," be it Baby Yoda or a kitten ... or a creepy little lamb. 

There are plenty of mothers of human children who bristle when childless pet owners refer to their animals as their babies: "It may be a gentle delusion to think of your pet as your 'child,' but it's still a delusion," went one screed in The Cut from a few years ago. But maybe "fur baby" isn't merely cringey, but something to be a little proud of, too — proof of our ancient ability to feel trans-species empathy.

For all the kooky parts of Lamb that go against nature — and boy, do they! — María and Ingvar's instinct to care for a baby sheep as its parents actually, bizarrely, might be the most natural thing in the world.

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