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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“With any character, the way I think about it is, you have the role on the page, you have the vision of the director and you have your life experience… I thought it was one of the foundations of the role for John Wick. I love his grief. For the character and in life, it’s about the love of the person you’re grieving for, and any time you can keep company with that fire, it is warm. I absolutely relate to that, and I don’t think you ever work through it. Grief and loss, those are things that don’t ever go away. They stay with you.”
~ Keanu Reeves

“I was checking through stuff the other day for technical reasons. I came across The Duellists on Netflix and I was absolutely stunned to see that it was exquisitely graded. So, while I rarely look up my old stuff, I stopped to give it ten minutes. Bugger me, I was there for two hours. I was really fucking pleased with what it was and how the engine still worked within the equation and that engine was the insanity and stupidity of war. War between two men, in that case, who fight on thought they both eventually can’t remember the reason why. It was great, yeah. The great thing about these platforms now is that, one way or another, they’ll seek out and then put out the best possible form and the long form. Frequently, films get cut down because of that curse in which the studio felt or feels that they have to preview. And there’s nothing worse than a preview to diminish the original intent.Oh, yeah, how about every fucking time? And I’ve stewed about films later even more because when you tell the same joke 20 times the joke’s no longer funny. When you tell a bad joke once or twice? It’s fine. But come on, now. Here’s the key on the way I feel when I approach the movie: I try to keep myself as withdrawn from the project as possible once I’ve filmed it. And – this is all key on this – then getting a really excellent editor so I never have to sit in on editing. What happens if you sit in is you become stale and every passage or joke, metaphorically speaking, gets more and more tired. You start cutting it all back because of fatigue. So what you have to do is keep your distance and therefore, in a funny kind of way, you, as the director, should be the preview and that’s it.”
~ Sir Ridley Scott