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Laura Dern gives one of the performances of the year so far in “The Tale”

By and large, the 2018 Sundance Film Festival was considered to be one that wouldn’t have much of an impact come Oscar season. Most years, at least one or two movies end up in play for Academy Awards. This year, however, there didn’t seem to be that sort of a lineup, especially once things began screen. Sure, there are contenders that could still surprise, but nothing seemed to be obvious. There was one interesting exception though, and that’s The Tale, which drew incredible buzz for star Laura Dern. The film was then oddly acquired by HBO, which premiered it over the weekend. Now, she’ll contend for Emmy and Golden Globe love instead of the Oscars.

The movie is about as dark a drama as it gets. The vague IMDb description is as follows: “An investigation into one woman’s memory as she is forced to re-examine her first sexual relationship and the stories we tell ourselves in order to survive.” Jennifer (Dern) has looked back on her younger days with fondness, in particular the times spent riding horses with Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki as the younger version, Frances Conroy as the older version). She also recalls time with Bill (Jason Ritter), which her mother Nettie (Ellen Burstyn) always found suspicious. These memories are re-evaluated when Nettie discovers an old story Jennifer wrote. She always presented it as fiction. To Nettie though, it’s a depiction of horrific rape and sexual abuse. As Jennifer dives back into her memories, some harsh truths begin to form. Jennifer Fox writes and directs, based on her own experience. The cast also includes Common, Isabella Amara, John Heard, Isabelle Nélisse, and more. Be warned, it could upset you, to the point where HBO and the film itself have put this out: “For those viewers who were sexually abused or experienced other childhood traumas, the film may bring forth intense feelings connected to those events, as well as an awareness of how what happened so long ago impacts your life today. Please know that you are not alone – resources and support are available. Call RAINN at 800-656-4673 or Darkness to Light at 866-FOR-LIGHT to have questions answered or chat with a trained crisis counselor, 24/7 at no charge. All conversations are confidential. More resources can also be found at thetalemovie.com”

Dern has never been better than she is here in this film. It’s a stunning achievement, made all the more powerful by the fact that she’s interpreting the filmmaker’s worst moments in life. Dern and Nélisse are not just playing Fox, they’re being directed by her as well. The emotion on set must have been incredibly poignant. The entire cast, along with Fox’s filmmaking, do yeoman’s work in depicting it all with horrifying realism, but never with any sense of falsehood. The movie needed to be as painful as it is. Kudos to Fox for actually going through with this. It’s a gut punch you won’t be able to shake.

Had it been a theatrical release, The Tale could have definitely been an Academy Award player. A campaign centered on Best Picture, Best Director (for Fox), Best Actress (for Dern), Best Supporting Actor (for Common and Ritter), Best Supporting Actress (for Burstyn, Debicki, and/or Nélisse), Best Original Screenplay (also for Fox), and Best Film Editing, could have made waves. In fact, one could argue that Dern would be the early Oscar frontrunner in Actress. As it stands, it’ll just look to be an Emmy powerhouse. When the Globes come around, she’ll also be there, without question. The work is too good to ignore.

The Tale is an important work. Beyond awards and anything like that, it’s just essential viewing, especially if it does some good in the world. What Fox suffered through should never happen to anyone, let alone a little girl. Her bravery in facing trauma head on like this should be commended. This is a special movie. It’s one of the year’s best so far, regardless of format. It won’t be easy to watch, and in fact, could be rather painful to witness. Still, it’s a must see. This is the sort of film that stands the test of time and actually is necessarily brutal to experience. Don’t miss it…

Be sure to check out The Tale, now on HBO!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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