May 25

“The Tale”: Recovering Trauma Memory and Meaning

…does a better job than any film I can recall at exploring the malleability of memory, particularly in relationship to trauma, and the stories people tell themselves to avoid feeling victimized. Sara Stewart, New York Post, reviewing The Tale

Airing on HBO tomorrow night, The Tale is a drama based on documentarian Jennifer Foxs real-life experience of childhood sexual trauma.

David Ehrlich, Indiewire: “’The Tale’ opens with a destabilizing line of narration: ‘The story you are about to see is true…as far as I know.’ The voice belongs not to Fox, but — unmistakably — to Laura Dern, embodying her director with great sympathy and a crinkled hint of self-loathing.”

Viewers meet Jennifer, the lead character, decades after the abuse. She’s a journalist engaged to Martin (Common). It just happens that her mother (Ellen Burstyn) finds an old essay (“The Tale”) written by her daughter way back when. Tomris Laffly, Time Out:

‘Something so beautiful’ is how Jenny (Isabelle Nélisse, heartbreakingly vulnerable) refers on the page to her double relationship with the frosty, angelic riding instructor ‘Mrs. G’ (Elizabeth Debicki, excellent and blood-curdling) and ex-Olympic athlete Bill (a boyishly trustworthy Jason Ritter, commendable for signing onto such a punishing part). But ‘beautiful’ isn’t the whole story: Over a summer spent on Mrs. G’s farm, the two adults lure Jenny into a sexual relationship, a manipulation the girl is too young to resist or even recognize as inappropriate. First told through brightly lit flashbacks that resemble heavenly postcards, The Tale deepens into something much darker as the grown-up Jennifer slowly pieces together the details of her past, chasing down interviews and asking the tough questions she couldn’t as a kid. (Be warned: Fox isn’t shy to show us rape scenes, necessary to her story and filmed with adult body-doubles.)

Watch the trailer:

Selected Thoughts from Reviewers

Leslie Felperin, Hollywood Reporter:  

Ultimately, where the film is truly challenging, and potentially controversial for some, is in the way it questions the nature of victimhood, and how young women, longing to feel loved and desired, and needing to assert agency for their actions, effectively collaborate in their own abuse and its covering-up. That doesn’t mean we should blame the victims or exonerate any of the adults involved, but Fox’s film does illustrate how complex and nuanced these situations can be, especially when they took place in the aftermath of the counterculture’s reframing of sexual norms. Just saying ‘It was the ’70s’ doesn’t let anyone off the hook, but it does contextualize a set of permissive-to-the-point-of-lax attitudes toward child sexuality.

David Ehrlich, Indiewire: “An immense, brave, and genuinely earth-shaking self-portrait that explores sexual assault with a degree of nuance and humility often missing from the current discourse.”

Alissa Wilkinson, Vox: “In The Tale, Fox takes an experience that’s far, far too common — and newly visible in American culture — and mines it for its emotional heft, turning it into an interrogation of how those who’ve experienced assault and abuse go on to navigate their lives. It is a story of a woman taking her life back, nested in a film serving the same purpose.”

Dec 26

“Wild”: Cheryl Strayed’s Difficult But Therapeutic Journey

The plot in brief of Jean-Marc Vallee’s Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed‘s memoir: Following a series of losses and struggles, Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) embarks on a solo three-month hike on the Pacific Coast Trail. Her mission statement: “I’m going to walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was” (Susan Wloszczyna, rogerebert.com).

Stephanie Zacharek, Village Voice, explains a bit more:

This woman-vs.-nature battle is, of course, really a woman-vs.-herself conflict in disguise. Although she’s joined by the occasional fellow traveler, the Strayed of Wild is mostly alone, and deeply so, with the memories of her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern), who died a few years earlier at age 45. In the time since, Strayed had done a marvelous job of messing up her life: She’s had a careless and dangerous fling with heroin, and she’s still feeling sorrow over a failed marriage.

Stephen Farber, Hollywood Reporter, reports on the frequent use of flashbacks, often brief ones, in Wild:

Gaby Hoffmann as Cheryl’s supportive but skeptical friend and Thomas Sadoski as her conflicted husband make the most of their scenes, but it’s really Dern who tears at our emotions during her scenes with Witherspoon. Bobbi’s life journey, cut tragically short by illness, is as compelling as Cheryl’s. This is one of the most honest, complex portrayals of a mother-daughter relationship that we’ve seen in any recent movie, and the loss of her mother helps to explain Cheryl’s utter disorientation and her search for a major challenge to bring her back to life.

Strayed encounters people—mostly men–along her current journey as well. Justin Chang, Variety:

As an attractive woman in her 20s traveling alone, Cheryl is acutely aware that every strange man she encounters is a potential predator — whether it’s the kind farm worker (W. Earl Brown) who offers her a hot meal and shower, or the fellow traveler who turns out to be a very real threat. But Cheryl is neither a passive victim nor a saint, and in a film of quietly understated moments that often prove more impressive than the whole, few are as telling as the one where she casually spies on a male hiker (Kevin Rankin) emerging nude from a dip in the river — a rare example of the female gaze at work in American movies.

See the Wild trailer below:

WITHERSPOON AS STRAYED

Like many (including myself), Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune) is fully on board: “Witherspoon does the least acting of her career, and it works. Calmly yet restlessly, she brings to life Strayed’s longings, her states of grief and desire and her wary optimism.” Ann Hornaday, Washington Post, represents the other camp: “…(T)here’s not a moment in the film when we can forget that we’re watching Reese Witherspoon…”

CHERYL STRAYED

Dana Stevens, Slate:

Cheryl’s a female protagonist of a kind we rarely see in the movies, someone who can be not just unlikable but at times unknowable, even to herself. This woman is a piece of work: disorganized, sailor-mouthed, given to self-destructive promiscuity and addictive behavior, but also curious, sardonic, and scary smart. After her divorce but before the hike, Cheryl rechristens herself, changing her birth surname, Nyland, to the evocative past-tense verb Strayed. Along the trail, she leaves quotes from the books she reads in a public logbook, co-signing them with her own name: ‘Emily Dickinson and Cheryl Strayed,’ ‘Adrienne Rich and Cheryl Strayed.’ Claiming co-authorship with the greats is a gesture of writerly hubris, sure, but it’s also an act of self-reinvention that somehow puts you on the side of this woman so determined to build up an interior self again, word by word.

A.O. Scott, New York Times: “What makes its heroine worth caring about — what makes her a rare and exciting presence in contemporary American film — is not that she’s tidy or sensible or even especially nice. It’s that she’s free.”

Oct 27

“Tracks” and “Wild”: Which of These Similar Films Will You See?

In all of the much-deserved shouting already out there about Reese Witherspoon in Wild (to be released later this year), a little film like Tracks could easily get lost. It’s a less audience-friendly film because while the two physical journeys are similar, the psychological journeys are much different. Marshall Fine, The Huffington Post

Two new one-word-titled films are just begging to be compared. Which of these upcoming true-memoir adaptations will you see? IMDB descriptions:

Tracks: A young woman goes on a 1,700-mile trek across the deserts of West Australia with four camels and her faithful dog.

Wild: A chronicle of one woman’s 1,100-mile solo hike undertaken as a way to recover from a recent catastrophe.

Tracks is set in the 1970’s, Wild in the 1990’s. Watch both trailers below:

The Real-Life Main Characters: Robyn Davidson in Tracks

“As depicted in the film, Davidson is not much of a people person. But she has a way with animals, and plans to make the trek with three adult camels, a cute baby camel named Goliath, and her dog Diggity.” (Peter Keough, Boston Globe)

“…a mix of maniacal idealism and childish stubbornness that makes it seem her chin is perpetually stuck out at the world. It’s hard to judge who’s more cantankerous, her or the four feral camels she trains to haul supplies for her and her beloved black dog, Diggity.” (Kristin Tillotson, Star Tribune)

The Real-Life Characters: Cheryl Strayed in Wild

“Witherspoon doesn’t shy away from showing the dark sides of Cheryl’s character — her surrender to sexual excesses and drug addiction, including heroin. Her battle for survival began a long time before she hit the wilderness trail, so her journey illuminates a whole series of internal as well as external struggles.” (Stephen Farber, Hollywood Reporter)

The Performances of the Leads: Mia Wasikowska (Tracks)

“After witnessing Wasikowska’s tour de force, its hard to imagine that even Oscar-winner Witherspoon can top it.” (Kriston Tillotson, Star Tribune)

The Performances of the Leads: Reese Witherspoon (Wild)

“…transforms herself both physically and emotionally into this hardened yet needy young woman seeking to reinvent herself after a series of personal tragedies.” (Stephen Farber, Hollywood Reporter)

Why the Journey? Tracks

“Hints at why come in flashbacks to her childhood — her father’s walkabouts, her mother’s suicide. But they feel like a distraction. As you watch the film unfold, the why quickly becomes less important than the how.” (Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times)

Why the Journey? Wild

“The painful disintegration of Cheryl’s marriage, accelerated by her frightening if not entirely convincing transformation into a heroin-shooting nymphomaniac, is presented as a direct result of Bobbi’s death, at which point ‘Wild’ reveals itself to be, among other things, a mother-daughter love story.” (Justin Chang, Variety)

Those Met Along the Way (Tracks)

As a sunburned Robyn begins to learn about camels from a ruthless taskmaster named Kurt (Rainer Bock), the rough world of those who live on the desert’s edge takes hold…

Though Kurt is a cheating brute, more often Robyn is met by the kindness of strangers. Three become instrumental in her journey: the Afghan camel wrangler Sallay (John Flaus), the Aborigine elder Mr. Eddy (Rolley Mintuma) and Rick (Adam Driver), the photographer who starts as an irritant and becomes a friend.  (Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times)

Flashbacks of Other Folks (Wild)

…[mom] Bobbi, an inspiring life force who is stricken with a devastating medical diagnosis. We learn of the closeness of their bond only gradually…

Gaby Hoffmann as Cheryl’s supportive but skeptical friend and Thomas Sadoski as her conflicted husband make the most of their scenes, but it’s really Dern who tears at our emotions during her scenes with Witherspoon. (Stephen Farber, Hollywood Reporter)

Jun 06

“The Fault In Our Stars”: Good Reviews for the Film

Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. First sentence of the description of John Green’s bestselling book The Fault in Our Stars

About the phenomenon of TFIOS, otherwise known as The Fault In Our Stars, Stephanie Zacharek, Village Voice, has stated: “Colloquial, breezy, and laced with black humor — the adjective ‘cancertastic’ may not yet be part of the dealing-with-cancer lexicon, but it should be — the book is very much loved, and not just by teenagers.”

Indeed, legions of both teens and adults will be going into Josh Boone‘s new movie version of The Fault in Our Stars already knowing basically what they’ll see—a poignant love story laced with inevitable heartbreak.

THE PLOT

Claudia Puig, USA Today:

Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is a bright and irreverent 16-year-old. Diagnosed with cancer at 13, she has to breathe from a tube connected to an oxygen tank she must carry everywhere. But she will not allow illness to define her.

At the behest of her loving mom (Laura Dern), Hazel reluctantly attends a support group for cancer survivors. Still, Hazel’s biggest passion is losing herself in An Imperial Affliction, a novel by a mysterious Amsterdam-based author.

One afternoon, a new boy stops by the support group. Augustus ‘Gus’ Waters (Ansel Elgort) is a strapping 17-year-old who has lost part of a leg to cancer. He and Hazel share an instant connection, and the whip-smart pair trade barbs, strike up a friendship, then fall in love.

Watch the trailer below:

THE CANCER SUPPORT GROUP

Andrew Barker, Variety: “Her parents (Laura Dern, Sam Trammell) are a loving, lovable pair who worry that Hazel is becoming depressed, as she has no friends and spends her time endlessly rereading reclusive author Peter Van Houten’s postmodern cancer-themed novel, ‘An Imperial Affliction.’ After some insistently gentle prodding, she agrees to attend a weekly church-basement support group hosted by sappy Jesus freak Patrick (Mike Birbiglia).”

HAZEL

Chris Nashawaty, ew.com: “…Hazel Grace, despite a diagnosis of thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs, is nobody’s martyr. She’s a sarcastic straight shooter who has accepted her fate and isn’t ashamed about the tubes under her nose or the unwieldy oxygen tank she has to lug around like a millstone.”

GUS

Stephanie Zacharek, Village Voice: “…a philosophical ex-basketball player with a tendency toward grandiose pronouncements. Just after their first meeting, he shocks Hazel by sticking a cigarette in his mouth — the look on her face says, ‘How could you? Around me, with my crap lungs?’ But his shtick is clenching cigarettes between his pillowy lips without lighting them: That way, he explains, he accepts their power to kill him without granting them the power to kill him.”

THE ROMANCE

Tasha Robinson, The Dissolve:

Hazel’s prognosis sometimes makes her pull away from Augustus, claiming she’s a grenade that may go off at any moment, and she doesn’t want to hurt him when she does. But as a fellow survivor, he has some authority when he keeps gently pushing her to accept him, so patiently and passively that he doesn’t seem stalkerish, but so insistently that his authentic affection for her comes across.

Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair:

As Augustus and Hazel grow closer, they embark on a quest to find out what happens after the ending of Hazel’s favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, written by an ornery recluse named Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe). Their journey takes them to Amsterdam, where they enjoy a wistful, romantic weekend before things get sad again.

Nov 29

“Enlightened”: An Overlooked Series

There’s been a new comedy/drama show on HBO this fall, Enlightened, that apparently hasn’t caught on so well, according to an article I read recently in Entertainment Weekly (EW) that calls it “the best show nobody’s watching.”

And New York Magazine’s “Approval Matrix” says Enlightened is “the rare cable show to perfect the sad-funny mix.”

How is this relevant to Minding Therapy? Well, as stated by writer Melissa Maerz in the EW article, the premise is that the lead character Amy (Laura Dern) has an emotional breakdown of sorts at work and is sent for some “New Age anger management rehab…Returning to the office feeling spiritually rejuvenated, she’s ready to change the world.”

Maerz cites some examples of the show’s dark humor:

Some of the best jokes come from Amy trying, and failing, and trying again to be a good person, one who really, truly connects with others. In one episode, she returns home to her mother (Diane Ladd), full of compassion. ‘It’s good to see you, Mom,’ she says. ‘Why?’ her mother asks, totally deadpan. In another episode, Amy visits her drug-addict ex-husband Levi (Luke Wilson), gushing about how great it is that they can reconnect in such a meaningful way without cocaine. ‘Yeah,’ he says, smiling. And then he leans over and snorts a massive line.

Diane Ladd, by the way, is Laura Dern’s mom in real life too.

For more info, including ways in which the series also elicits sadness, click here.

In the preview below, Amy, described as “a woman on the verge of a nervous breakthrough,” is first seen failing to cope—and then trying to use her newfound therapeutic insights to move forward: