I'm a bit peeved that I saw both of these films so late in the year, and very nearly let them both slip through the cracks. After generating buzz at Sundance, "The Tale" had its premiere on HBO, and "American Animals" was co-distributed by MovePass, which clearly did not have the resources to adequately market it. Both films have some interesting elements in common, so I'm pairing them for reviews here.
"The Tale" is a memoir of writer/director Jennifer Fox, dealing with her discovery in her forties that a relationship that she had as a thirteen-year-old was far more inappropriate than she remembered. Fox is played as an adult by Laura Dern, and at thirteen by Isabelle Nélisse. The emotionally fraught trip down memory lane is sparked by Fox's mother Nettie (Ellen Burstyn), who finds a story her daughter wrote as a teenager, detailing her experiences with her running coach, Bill Allens (Jason Ritter), and her riding instructor, Mrs. G. (Elizabeth Debicki).
The difficult material involving child abuse is handled with care, and treated with the utmost sensitivity. There is even a pointed disclaimer stating that adult body doubles were used in certain scenes with the younger actors. However, what I think really makes the film so compelling and potentially valuable is that it's less about the relationship between the younger Fox and her coach, and more about the older Fox trying to reconcile with her past self. There are several interesting narrative conceits to show unreliable memories at work. In addition, the older and younger versions of Jennifer Fox have conversations about various events as they play out onscreen. The self-examinations are incredibly personal and genuine.
The film is anchored by Laura Dern, who keeps us engaged with Fox's emotional journey as she digs deeper and deeper back into her past and psyche. Dern has been having a fantastic run of roles recently, and she's at her best here, grappling with ugly uncertainties and painful truths. Nélisse is also wonderfully infuriating as the youngster who is so convinced that she's in control of the situation, and kudos to Jason Ritter for bringing some humanity to a despicable role. However, it's thanks to Jennifer Fox's unsentimental, unsparing perspective and refusal to look away, that "The Tale" has the impact that it does. This is one of the bravest feats of filmmaking I've seen in a long while.
On to "American Animals," a heist film from Bart Layton, who previously made the true crime documentary "The Imposter." Now, "The Imposter" was a documentary that had some interesting meta storytelling tricks, but "American Animals" goes further by being a full blown scripted dramatization of real events combined with documentary elements. Namely, interviews with the four perpetrators, Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk, and Chas Allen, are interspersed throughout the film, where they are played by Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Jared Abrahamson, and Blake Jenner. The heist took place in 2003, when the foursome were students at Kentucky's Transylvania University, and they robbed the school library's rare book collection. The real criminals directly comment and even interact with elements of the dramatized heist in some fascinating ways.
We've seen movies with meta elements before, mostly comedies, including the recent "A Futile and Stupid Gesture." What the interviews do here is to aid the film in the demystification of the usual heist narrative, and help to ground the characters more fully in the real world. Layton does a fantastic job of keeping the two sides of the film balanced with each other, and both are compelling on their own terms. Fidelity is treated as paramount, even if some of the narrators are pretty unreliable. Layton even does a few match cuts with the actors and the interview subjects as he transitions from one frame of reality to another.
The result is a much greater degree of verisimilitude than you ever find in these kinds of caper films, with perpetrators who are relatable and sympathetic. We get to see exactly how the crimes snowballed, and hear about the groupthink that pushed all the participants to go through with their scheme. So even though we know how everything is going to turn out, the events depicted are incredibly tense to see unfold. The four main actors also deliver excellent performances, especially Keoghan as Reinhard, and Peters as Lipka. The ending with the real criminals is also unusually satisfying, delivering the kind of closure that a traditional narrative never could.
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