May 25

“The Tale” of Sexual Trauma: Featuring Laura Dern

…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, starring Laura Dern, 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.”

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).

Her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) has died several years earlier. In flashbacks we see Bobbi as well as Cheryl’s friend (Gaby Hoffmann) and her husband (Thomas Sadoski).

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.”

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.”