Thursday, May 31, 2018

Review: Laura Dern delivers a career-high performance in "The Tale"

The Tale Review
This movie made a festival run before being picked up by HBO and being released earlier. So I've decided to review it tonight.

I have always wondered how Laura Dern never became one of the biggest actresses of her generation. I have always been fascinated by her in every David Lynch collaboration she did. I think it borders on crimes against humanity that The Academy never nominated Dern for her work in "Inland Empire" in 2007. But Lynch doesn't play the hype game and the movie was way too weird for awards. She is Bruce Dern's daughter. She's appeared in "Jurassic Park" and a host of other films. She's been in the game for quite awhile now. How she isn't one those go-to girls really bothers me, because I have always found her incredible. But nothing could prepare me for what was about to happen when I happened upon "The Tale."

"The Tale" is based on a true story about Jennifer Fox, who was documentarian before making this first feature film. The movie is about her life, about a very specific time in her life. Laura Dern plays an adult Jennifer Fox. We see Dern's Fox make documentaries. She also teaches at a university. She is going to marry a good man, played by Common no less. She is frequently called by her mother (Ellen Burstyn, who seems frantic about her daughter's whereabouts. There seems to be something to that though. Fox's mother Nettie has discovered an old story and notes regarding an event that happened to Jennifer when she was young and the contents of that event seem to point that something horrible happened to Jennifer at that time.

One of the main themes of the movie is memory. Fox seems to suggest that humans can't always be reliable for memories, even when its an individual's own life that a said individual is reflecting upon. Jennifer starts to think about the story she wrote when she was young, the notes that were sent to her. There was a summer when she was fifteen years old. She learned how to ride a horse that summer, and she was taught by an person known as Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki) and her helper/lover Billy (Jason Ritter). During these memories, Fox is played by Jessica Sarah Flaum. Fox seems to remember these two people as important figures in her life, and those who really taught her what love was. It seems that Fox's own parents were out of the picture mostly and she spent an unusual amount of time with these two adults, but it was all innocent and care-free. At least, that's how Fox remembers them. When her mother corrects her memory, we really begin to see that we have the power and even the desire to rewrite our own memories and how far we go to forget certain things.

From this point forward, Fox in the memories is played by Isabelle Nelisse and she's a much younger actress. We also begin to learn that Mrs. G and especially Bill are not who we really think they are, and as the adult Fox begins to piece her memories back together again, we learn that Bill was truly a monster. What begins as an intriguing mystery, quickly turns stark and sad and disturbing. Bill begins to groom the young Fox and it comes increasingly clear that he abused her sexually and that Mrs. G was more than aware of it. It is striking acting by both Debicki and especially Ritter. The moments of abuse are so realistic and raw that I truly felt the need to look away. These moments are so carefully, delicately directed that I have to give the real Jennifer Fox props, this is magnificent directing for a person who has never made a feature film before. 

Making a movie for the first time also leads to some pitfalls. There are very few artists to who hit a homerun of a first movie. There are definitely some first time jitters in Fox's films. She has trouble staging some scenes, working with actors, and blocking scenes appropriately. I'd also say that Common's fiance character isn't utilized the right way. "The Tale" was perfectly timed with our own social history due to the Hollywood stories that have dominated the news this year. Still, halfway through the year, it still feels that a new actor is in trouble with sexual harassment or even something worse. While I believe in the difference between an allegation and a conviction, I am happy that so many women are finding a platform to discuss what has happened to them. As this #MeToo movement continues to grow, I think its important to that we recognize good role models for men, and Common's character could have been an outlet for that. But he comes and goes, and his scenes are so blisteringly cliche that he feels like a waste. 

I think the most important point "The Tale" makes is how memories make us and how we sometimes try to remember something differently in order to move past a particular trauma. Every time a new famous person is accused of doing something bad sexually, lots of people will jump to the point of "why did they wait so long to say something?" "The Tale" clarifies that our memories may not be very reliable, and when we take time to remember and investigate a new, brighter memory takes its place, full of clarity. There are a number of factors that seem play into when a victim thinks its ready t share something, and clarity seems to be one of them. This movie reminds that instead of condemning those who step up and admit what happened to them, that we take the time to really listen, and be there for them and help them through it. We as an audience aren't owed anything, and somebody finding the courage to speak up is a great thing. This movie reminds us of that point as well.

I don't know if Jennifer Fox ever plans to make another feature film. But while some parts are a little patchy, she's got some remarkable chops and some real filmmaking muscle. It will be interesting to see if she ever plans to harness anymore of that.

FINAL GRADE: B+

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