Sundance 2018: Jennifer Fox’s The Tale

On Film / The Daily — Jan 22, 2018

“In The Tale, an early critical favorite at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and a drama of uncommonly troubling power, Laura Dern plays Jennifer Fox, a documentary filmmaker trying to remember an experience that befell her at the age of thirteen, when she was preyed upon sexually by an older man,” begins Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times. “The movie was written and directed by the real-life documentary filmmaker Jennifer Fox, who noted during the post-screening Q&A that, apart from the fact that she and Dern look nothing alike, the story is ‘pure memoir.’ . . . With grueling intimacy, remarkable courage and a nervily intricate approach to psychology and narrative, Fox shuffles her painful memories like puzzle pieces and invites us to sift through them alongside her. She has made not only an unsparingly confrontational look at the trauma of abuse, but also an extended rumination on the unreliable nature of memory—the peculiar alchemy by which storytelling becomes a means of survival.”

This is “a landmark cine-memoir that’s as powerful and profoundly upsetting as any film since The Act of Killing,” declares IndieWire’s David Ehrlich, “a staggering and radical work of self-analysis that’s also a remarkably lucid piece of autobiography.” And it’s “undeniably primed for the #MeToo movement, but it’s also so much bigger than that. While the film triple underlines the vile nature of these crimes and the vital importance of our growing solidarity against them, to fully conflate Fox’s achievement with a political movement (even such a necessary one) could only diminish the personal scope of its power.”

“Young Jenny, played sensitively by Isabelle Nélisse, believes she’s in a relationship with her coach, the boyishly handsome Bill (Jason Ritter, admirably committed to a punishing role) and that she will someday, somehow, join Bill and her riding instructor, Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki, coy and slippery), in a kind of New Age-y version of romantic union,” explains Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson. “Bill and Mrs. G have a manipulative, faux-enlightened philosophy that they use to lure Jenny in, and it’s the movie’s delicate, insisting work to pick all that apart—and, finally, to cast it aside—to get to the heart of what happened.”

“Straight-to-camera speeches, games of temporal disjunction, and moments when the narrator/protagonist interacts directly with her younger self and people still in the past work as edgy devices that help express the fragility of memory,” writes Leslie Felperin in the Hollywood Reporter. “Social media was soon abuzz with praise after the film's premiere, with many rightly lauding the bravery of Fox's work of creative nonfiction.”

“Fox isn’t posing as her own therapist so much as a new kind of private investigator, drawing from her own documentary research skills to uncover this half-forgotten chapter of her own past,” suggests Variety’s Peter Debruge.

The Tale rattled me in ways I didn’t know I still could be rattled,” writes Jordan Hoffman for the Guardian. “I want more people to see The Tale because it’s such an innovative, honest and important film. It is a landmark, and Laura Dern is absolutely extraordinary. But I know for certain I’ll never watch it again.”

“This is certainly not a film that everyone will be able to take, but it’s rare to see a film that’s this fearlessly confrontational and emotionally complex,” adds Brian Tallerico at RogerEbert.com.

Fox’s “willingness to tell her own story in such graphic detail is a startlingly brave act,” agrees Gregory Ellwood at the Playlist.

Updates, 1/23: The A.V. Club’s A. A. Dowd suggests that “if we’re speculating, as critics on the ground here often do, on what will end up winning the jury’s grand prize, my money is on The Tale. . . . This is not an easy film; there are sex scenes, carefully and about as tastefully filmed as possible, between a child and the predator who grooms her. It’s not a perfect film, either: Fox’s script reduces some supporting characters to dramatic devices, and the score by Ariel Marx is an overbearing, overused distraction. But the power of this material—and of Dern’s devastating performance—stays with you. And given the timely parallels between its true story and those of a nation (and industry) of women breaking their silence about the abuses of the past, it’s hard to imagine the jury seeing a more resonant option. If there’s a movie of the festival, The Tale is it.”

For Screen’s Tim Grierson, The Tale “has a harrowing, desperate vibrancy which is consistently riveting. Dern beautifully plays a woman who thought she understood her life and career, only to realize that she has been in denial about a key chapter in her upbringing. As the younger Jenny, Nélisse conveys both innocence and intelligence, and her developing relationship with the older Bill is utterly believable, no matter how uncomfortable their budding romantic rapport might make some viewers feel. Much credit goes to Ritter, who convincingly plays Bill as a smiling, damaged man who has long since convinced himself that he’s acting morally.”

Kate Erbland reports on the Q&A for IndieWire.

Updates, 1/24: “Dern effectively conveys her character’s obsessive curiosity, and even though she’s exploring something that happened to herself, her Jennifer remains analytical, as if this might be just another documentary subject for her,” writes Bilge Ebiri in the Village Voice. “This might be brutal stuff, but The Tale, for much of its running time, avoids easy emotional beats; it’s a surprisingly cerebral movie.”

“The film, shot by Ivan Strasburg, carries an unembellished style as if Fox is saying that nothing else matters except the truth, and the difficult path in trudging up forty years of distance from it,” notes Jordan Raup at the Film Stage.

“This is an excellent, poignant, and amazing film that will stick with you,” promises Mike Ryan at Uproxx.

The Tale is one of the films April Wolfe, Eric Hynes, and Nicolas Rapold discuss in a recent episode of the Film Comment Podcast (36’35”).

Updates, 1/25: “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,” writes Kim Voynar at Movie City News. “Rapper Common, as Jennifer’s sympathetic, endlessly patient partner, is a steady presence throughout the film, balancing out Jennifer’s increasingly frantic energy.”

The Tale is less a disturbing story of Jennifer’s experience being groomed by a sexual predator . . . than it is about the way memory can be bent and shaped to serve as a protective shield,” writes Scott Renshaw for the Salt Lake City Weekly. “Some of the structural conceits are a bit clunky—including Jennifer teaching a doc filmmaking course that allows her to hash out some issues literally—and one key revelation seems a lot more obvious than the narrative suggests. The real power, though comes less in Jennifer’s confrontation with others than in her confrontations with herself, interrogating a part of her psyche that has to admit that there was pain before she can begin to heal.”

On the new Film Comment Podcast (51’23”), Amy Taubin explains why she’s got more than a few problems with this one.

Updates, 1/26: “The reason I put my name on it was so that nobody could say it was a lie,” Fox tells Amy Kaufman in the Los Angeles Times. “Nobody could chop the film down by saying, ‘Oh, it’s just fiction. Sexual abuse doesn’t look like that.’ I am here to represent that it does.”

For the Credits, Kelle Long talks with composer Ariel Marx, who’s “provided a beautifully empathetic score.”

Updates, 1/27: Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey finds that “the dialogue is frequently stilted, and while Laura Dern and Ellen Bustyn are unsurprisingly brilliant, Common is embarrassingly bad as Dern’s fiancé. But those issues are ultimately secondary anyway; this is probably an instance where a film’s overall effect simply matters more than the particulars.”

At Movie City News, Kim Voynar finds that “it’s all so exquisitely crafted you can’t help but be drawn into Fox’s sad—and all too common—tale.”

“For years,” Fox tells Women and Hollywood, “every time I tried to approach this story, whatever I wrote seemed trite and didn’t represent the complexity of what was inside of me. It wasn’t until I was in my forties making the film Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman about women around the world that something changed.”

HBO Films has picked this one up, report Variety’s Ramin Setoodeh and Brent Lang. “The deal for North American and overseas territories was in the high seven figure range, making it one of the largest pacts out of this year’s Sundance.”

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