January 25, 2018

SHOWBUZZDAILY Sundance Film Festival Reviews: “Wildlife” & “The Tale”


WILDLIFE (no distrib):  If you’ve ever felt sorry for youngsters who are cordoned off from their parents’ difficult relationships, and then blindsided by the consequences, Paul Dano’s directing debut advises that pity should really be reserved for those children who know all too much about what’s going on.  Dano’s austere and disturbing drama isn’t likely to attract wide audiences, but it’s an impressive start to his broadened career.  Dano also co-wrote the script with Zoe Kazan, based on Richard Ford’s novel, which centers on young Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould).  When Joe’s father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) loses his golf pro job at a smalltown 1960 Montana country club, things go haywire, and Joe is in the middle of it all.  That’s particularly true with respect to Joe’s mother Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), who becomes a walking embodiment of fury, self-disgust and desperation, and who incorporates Joe in her campaign to seduce the well-off Warren Miller (Bill Camp).  The acting by all concerned is superlative, and Mulligan is especially jaw-dropping, because we haven’t seen her give a performance this adult and scalding before.  (In a fantasy production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? she would always have been the Honey until now, but suddenly she seems just a few years away from being an awesome Martha.)  When actors turn director, their skill with performers is taken for granted, but Dano’s work is impressive on every technical level as well:  his collaborations with cinematographer Diego Garcia, production designer Akin McKenzie, and composer David Lang are distinctive and honed.  Wildlife is almost unrelievedly bleak, and Dano’s comfort with long silences sometimes makes its 104 minutes feel long.  Dano, though, is a real filmmaker, not just an actor who wanted a turn behind the camera.

THE TALE (no distrib):  It’s difficult to approach The Tale simply as a movie, particularly after a screening where writer/director Jennifer Fox was in attendance, because it’s a particularly personal and intimate document.  Like Bart Layton with American Animals, Fox is a former documentarian whose first scripted film investigates the relationship between narrative and fact in original cinematic ways.  With The Tale, though, Fox’s subject is her own experience as a 13-year old whose sexual relationship with an adored authority figure was something she considered a genuine romance at the time, only to realize decades later that it had been a predation.  Obviously, this couldn’t be more timely, but Fox isn’t simply recounting a terrible story.  She’s after something much more complicated and uncomfortable, refusing to condemn her younger self’s feelings even while understanding that she was being manipulated in a monstrous way.  Fox has crafted The Tale cleverly as a sort of detective story, in which her older self (played by Laura Dern) hunts down the truth of what happened when she was 13 (when she is played by Isabelle Nelisse)–it’s almost as if she’s learning about her own version of The Matrix.  Both Dern and Nelisse are powerful, and Elizabeth Debicki and Frances Conroy are expert mixes of charm and ugliness as the younger and older versions of the trusted adult who helped in Jennifer’s seduction.  Fox’s coup, though, was in casting Jason Ritter as the predator (also played briefly by John Heard):  as creepy as the story would inevitably be, it’s much worse (and in a terrible way, makes much more sense) when the role is played by someone whose entire career exudes niceness, here delivered with full-on charm but deadened eyes.  The Tale becomes difficult to watch before it’s over (in the post-screening Q&A, Fox and Nelisse explained how painstakingly and artfully some scenes had been shot and edited so that the young actress would not actually have to take part even in simulations of what was being depicted), and it’s hard to imagine the film at a multiplex.  Those who see it, however, are unlikely to forget it.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."