Two phenomenal actresses drive the narratives of a pair of films that screened today in the U.S. Dramatic Competition program at Sundance 2018, and their work will be on lists of the best of the year, even if both films struggle at times to match the fearlessness of their lead performances. Both films are designed in a way to challenge viewers and make them uncomfortable at what’s unfolding in front of them. They’re the kind of movies we so often want from independent filmmaking in that they take actual risks with their storytelling and their form, challenging preconceptions and confronting viewers. And one of them couldn’t possibly be timelier.
“I am not the victim of this story, I am the hero.” This line could be the motto of the #TimesUp movement, and the real-world relevance of the film in which it's spoken, Jennifer Fox’s “The Tale,” reverberates through every frame of this emotionally raw look at abuse, trauma, and the power of memory. Fox’s decades of experience as a documentary filmmaker greatly influence the way she approaches this story of buried tragedy in a way that feels refreshing and new. Her film pulls absolutely no punches, presenting a story of child abuse in a way that had some viewers heading for the door. 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 when it comes to the issues at play within it.
Laura Dern plays Jennifer, a famous journalist and professor who lives with her boyfriend (Common) in New York City and seems to have a happy, stable life. That stability is shattered when her mother (Ellen Burstyn) finds a story that Jennifer wrote for a class project when she was only 13. The story is about two coaches that worked with Jennifer at that age (played by Elizabeth Debicki and Jason Ritter in extensive flashbacks) and it details a physical love. Jennifer remembers having something special with these adults, but she’s convinced herself over the years that it was no big deal. Her first time was with an older man. That’s true of many girls. But she begins to look deeper into the truth about what happened back then, as well as how it’s shaped who she is today, and she realizes she has some questions that need answering.
In Fox’s most daring narrative move, Jennifer asks some of those questions directly to the past versions of her abusers, almost as if they’re interview subjects in a documentary. The fourth wall is constantly being broken, and current Jennifer converses regularly with the teen version of herself, played delicately by Isabelle Nélisse. Jennifer turned the narrative of her abuse into an empowering one—she was taking control of her life and being seen by someone for the first time instead of just a part of a family that too often ignored her. However, the adult Jennifer is only now realizing the damage that was done at the same time. And she’s trying to reclaim the truth.
“The Tale” is one of the most graphic films you’ll ever see regarding child abuse—and Ritter deserves a great deal of credit for taking a role so loathsome given how much the film could have gone wrong—but it’s a strength of the movie in that Fox doesn’t sugarcoat anything. At one point, Jennifer confronts one of her students about when she lost her virginity and snaps at her when she hesitates, telling her that she has to be able to reveal herself if she’s going to ask the same of others. “The Tale” is similarly vulnerable and harrowing in the details it reveals.
There are times when it feels like Fox’s film is violating the “show don’t tell” rule in that it externalizes a great deal of emotional tumult through dialogue, sometimes in ways that don’t sound completely realistic. There are scenes of Jennifer talking to herself, working through her feelings, in a way that feels overly scripted, as do a few moments with her boyfriend and mother. And Dern can do so much with a look or just the way she uses her body language to convey emotion. I found her performance more resonant when Dern was allowed to let the storm rage within instead of venting it out. However, the exaggerated dialogue fits the conceit of the film in that it’s a heightened, emotional, personal descent into trauma. It’s about how memory deceives us and how we allow that deception to shape our lives in ways we don’t fully recognize. Through movements like #TimesUp, we are now casting light into the pitch-black recesses of several industries, and “The Tale” is a film that artistically amplifies that wattage.
If Dern’s performance is in the running for the best of Sundance 2018, it already has a strong challenger from Maggie Gyllenhaal in “The Kindergarten Teacher,” director Sara Colangelo’s remake of the acclaimed Israeli film of the same name. Gyllenhaal gives her best film performance in years as Lisa Spinelli, a 40-year-old Staten Island teacher who is somewhat adrift in life. Her teenage kids are more invested in Instagram than family dinners and she’s not doing as well as she’d like in her poetry class (taught by Gael Garcia Bernal). One day after school, she hears one of her 5-year-old students, a sweet boy named Jimmy Roy, recite a poem. It’s a beauty. She becomes fascinated by this child who seems to enter a trance and produce gorgeous, pure art. Could he be the new Mozart?
Would we know if a new Mozart existed? We don’t really live in a world anymore that supports that kind of nurturing of a prodigy. Wouldn’t he just get sanded down by common core and social media? Lisa becomes convinced that Jimmy is a once-in-a-generation talent, and she’s going to do whatever it takes to help that flower grow. And she’ll push back against everyone who stands in her way, even if it destroys her life.
Gyllenhaal, appearing in every single scene of the film, gives a completely committed, three-dimensional performance. It’s a very tough part to play—we have to believe that Lisa would risk everything for a poetic kindergartener—but Gyllenhaal makes every beat of it work. It’s a performance always on the edge of danger as we worry with increasing alarm that Lisa is going to do something very, very wrong. It’s a thriller almost, but it’s suspense that's borne out of human need for something real in a world that feels increasingly fake. There’s nothing fake about what Gyllenhaal does in this film. It reminds us how great she can be with the right material, and how grateful we should be that filmmakers are willing to give actors like her and Dern parts this unforgettable.