By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Sundance Review: THE TALE

One of the most buzzed-about films is “The Tale,” writer-director Jennifer Fox’s powerful, personal story based her childhood experience of being groomed and sexually abused at the age of 13 by a beloved track coach.  Laura Dern, outstanding in every frame, plays the adult Jennifer, while 15-year-old Isabelle Nélisse plays Jenny at 13. Best-known for her expansive personal documentaries like the epic “Flying,”  Fox skillfully weaves a fascinating journey through layers of perception and misperception skewed by innocence and naiveté.

Jennifer, in the film, is als a documentary filmmaker who lives her life at a frenzied, frantic pace that will register as immediately familiar to many adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse or trauma; any good therapist will tell you that when you have buried issues your mind doesn’t want to deal with, one of the ways it deals with that is by keeping itself very busy all the time so it doesn’t have to unravel painful truths.

When we meet Jennifer she’s returning home from yet another work trip to a far-flung place to find her mom (Ellen Burstyn) has left a slew of very upset voice mail messages about something she’s found in going through Jennifer’s old keepsakes – a handwritten story written when Jennifer was 13-year-old Jenny – about a young girl’s sexual deflowering by her running coach, and her relationship with the coach and his married girlfriend. Jennifer’s story to herself has always been that this was a special, romantic relationship; now that her mother’s raised the question, though, she’s forced to consider: has she been hiding the truth about a sexual predator behind a romanticized tale of  first love her entire adult life? The documentary filmmaker turns a lens upon herself, using the techniques she teaches her students to use on their interview subjects to uncover buried truths within herself.

Performances are solid all around. Dern is a reliably terrific actress in anything and she delivers a practically perfect turn here, charting Jennifer’s emotional with a raw anguish and desperation to understand and confront her truth. Rapper Common, as Jennifer’s sympathetic, endlessly patient partner, is a steady presence throughout the film, balancing out Jennifer’s increasingly frantic energy. Jason Ritter simultaneously plays both with and against his usual good-guy type, delivering a career-high performance as the charismatic, charming track coach, Billy. As for Nélisse, the young actress shines with a mature, nuanced performance in the kind of role we would have seen Dakota or Elle Fanning inhabit not too many Sundances back (for the curious, Nélisse and Ritter were filmed separately for the sex scenes between Jenny and Billy. Nélisse was shot on a vertical bed with the camera turned sideways, and Ritter’s scenes were filmed with an adult body double).

The intricacies unfold slowly, evoking structurally the way memory itself works: we see Jenny as a young girl, and Jennifer the woman, going between past and present, trying to make sense of what really happened that summer, as Jennifer the documentary filmmaker gets closer to discovering the truth she’s hidden from herself her entire adult life. Fox doesn’t shy away from looking squarely at the spots that make us cringe, revealing in vivid detail how Billy slowly, carefully “grooms” Jenny over months of building trust. It’s a hard film to watch – Nélisse, who’s 15 but looks more like 12 here, seems so tiny, so young and naive, and Billy so smoothly charming and practiced in his grooming of her and you want to reach out to her to make it stop – but it’s all so exquisitely crafted you can’t help but be drawn into Fox’s sad – and all too common – tale.

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