Monday, June 4, 2018

Movie Review: The Tale

The Tale **** / *****
Directed by: Jennifer Fox.
Written by: Jennifer Fox.
Starring: Laura Dern (Jennifer), Isabelle Nelisse (Jenny), Jason Ritter (Bill), Elizabeth Debicki (Mrs. G), Ellen Bursten (Nettie), Frances Conroy (Mrs. G – Older), John Heard (Bill – Older), Common (Martin), Isabella Amara (Franny), Tina Parker (Fran), Jodi Long (Rebecca), Madison David (Young Iris), Shay Lee Abeson (Becky), Gretchen Koerner (Iris), Jessica Sarah Flaum (Jenny at 15).
The Tale is a perfect movie for the #MeToo era that we all find ourselves in – but it would be a great film regardless of whether or not we were in that era. The film is a dark examination of childhood sexual abuse, yes, but it’s also about the stories we tell us – the lies we convince ourselves of, in order to make peace with our past, and be able to live in the present. We often do not know what precisely in our past turned us into who we are in the present – and if we don’t examine that, we never will.
The film was written and directed by Jennifer Fox, who up until now has made documentaries. It premiered to wild acclaim at Sundance (for once, earned) – but many were disappointed that HBO bought the film for broadcast on their network, bypassing a theatrical run. Fox has said HBO was probably the right avenue for the film – as who would want to go out for a night at the movies and see a film like this. I do wish it was released in theatres as well, although I concede Fox’s point there.
The story of the film kicks off when Jennifer (Laura Dern), now 48, receives a concerned phone call from her mother, Nettie (Ellen Burstyn). Nettie found a story that Jennifer wrote back when she was 13 – and is concerned that her daughter has been lying to her about her relationship with her track coach, Bill (Jason Ritter) and her riding coach, Mrs. G. (Elizabeth Debicki) all those years ago. To Jennifer, this wasn’t much of anything – so her first boyfriend was a little older, what’s the big deal. But as she reads the story, and starts talking to those who were around during the key summer in question, she realizes things were darker than she remembered. This is made plain early in the film, when at first a confident, older teenager starts reading the story Jennifer wrote all those years ago – but when the current Jennifer is confronted with a picture of what she actually looked like at that time – much younger than she thought, the movie kind of resets, and we hear the same passage again, this time coming out of the mouth of 13 year old Jenny (Isabelle Nelisse), with much less confidence and presence.
Laura Dern was the right choice to play the older Jennifer. Dern has always been less risk averse than most actresses, and here, she is playing a version of the writer/director herself, confronting her past, and trying to reconcile it to the present. It’s a gutsy role, and one that requires a lot from Dern – who delivers one of her best performances (she has been on a role recently). As the younger Jennifer, young Nelisse is truly great as well – she is playing a quiet, shy teenager, from a loud, large family – who liked that older, more sophisticated people were taking an interest in her – that they loved her. She is first drawn in by Mrs. G. (Debicki is great at this) – and she doesn’t see the warning signs with her, and certainly not with Bill (Jason Ritter – a great choice, because he appears so harmless, so normal). There are few times when the two Jennifers interact with each other – and young Jenny is defiant to her older self, telling her she is just one more adult who doesn’t understand her.
The movie is structured almost like a mystery, as the older Jennifer, utilizing her interview skills, talks to one person from the past after another – and realizing more and more that they all have different views of their past. Some of this is a little too drawn out (the movie runs nearly two hours, and could have been shortened) – but for the most part it works wonderfully. We watch as the older Jennifer has to come terms with what happened to her – and realize how it has shaped her whole life – and watch in horror as the younger Jenny is groomed by people who are supposed to care about her, and take care of her. It is an extremely uncomfortable movie to watch – but then again, it should be an extremely uncomfortable movie to watch. It’s also an important one to watch as we continue to grapple with what all the issues raised in The Tale – and many others – and how we move forward. It’s a shame that this film won’t be seen in theatres – but it’s a good thing that it’s going to be seen at all.

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