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“Are you able to simply let me sit with my very own reminiscences?” This plea, from Jennifer (Laura Dern) to her mom (Ellen Burstyn), is a key second in “The Story,” a unprecedented and disturbing new movie directed by Jennifer Fox, primarily based on Fox’s personal expertise with childhood molestation. It is key as a result of “The Story” is, in some ways, about reminiscence, and reminiscence’s unreliability and slipperiness. Reminiscence can cloak trauma in one other “higher” narrative, sparing us till we’re able to deal. Joan Didion famously wrote “We inform ourselves tales to be able to reside” (Jennifer quotes this in “The Story” throughout a lecture to her movie college students). Didion’s phrases are sometimes recast as some self-help “all of our tales matter” pablum, however that is not what Didion was getting at in any respect. Storytelling is usually a wholesome factor, or it may be a sinister factor. Everybody needs their very own narrative to “make sense.” However our thoughts performs methods on us, and what was used as safety for a traumatized youngster can start to destroy the grownup. What’s wonderful about Fox’s movie (her first narrative characteristic, though she’s been making documentaries for years) is the way it exhibits—visually—how reminiscence operates, what it is like to recollect one thing. Usually, in movies like this, you get flashbacks unfurling in a linear means, and the flashbacks, little by little, lead us as much as the current. However that is not how reminiscence works. It is a lot a lot messier than that.
Within the movie, Jennifer can also be a documentary filmmaker, and so her complete life is about discovering frameworks for complicated narratives. However when her mom calls her someday, deeply upset a couple of story she simply unearthed from a field, one thing Jennifer wrote in center faculty, Jennifer does not know what the massive deal is. At first. 13-year-old Jennifer wrote of a summer time spent together with her horseback driving instructor “Mrs. G” (Elizabeth Debicki) and her working coach “Invoice” (Jason Ritter). In it, she particulars her “relationship” with the 40-year-old Invoice, whom she considers her old flame. Jennifer’s aged mom is horrified by what she has learn. She had no thought her daughter was raped by her working coach. However that is not how Jennifer remembers it. She remembers it as one thing stunning.
The unnerving energy of “The Story” is in Fox’s strategy. Within the first flashback, Jennifer is 15 years outdated (performed by Jessica Sarah Flaum), beginning her first day at a horseback driving camp. It might be the opening to a bittersweet coming-of-age story, which is how Jennifer has seen all of it her life. However whereas going by way of some photograph albums together with her mom, Jennifer comes throughout a photograph of herself that summer time. She does not bear in mind herself as being that little. All of a sudden, we see the identical flashback, solely now her youthful self is 13 (Isabelle Nélisse). It is extraordinarily efficient in its queasy-making readability. It isn’t that the occasions of the summer time could be excusable if she had been 15 years outdated. It is that her thoughts has tricked herself into considering she was older. However the photograph of her prepubescent self hammers a crack into her romantic narrative. She goes on a quest to attempt to piece collectively that summer time, monitoring down different college students from the driving camp, even paying a go to to a now aged Mrs. G (a terrifying Frances Conroy).
The movie is one lengthy interrogation, not solely from Jennifer the character’s standpoint, however from a directorial standpoint. Characters look straight on the digital camera, dead-on, standing in eerie tableaux, caught as if for a digital camera, pictures trapped in an album, telling no tales. Time folds in on itself, as Jennifer strikes by way of her personal previous. She sees the identical occasion from completely different views, including shadings as extra info turns into out there to her. Jennifer questions the current-day Mrs. G, however she additionally interrogates the youthful Mrs. G, or the youthful Invoice, and even her youthful self. Her youthful self says to her, point-blank, “I am not the sufferer of this story. I am the hero.”
As 13-year-old Jenny will get sucked into the charismatic personalities of Mrs. G and Invoice, we the viewers can see that they’re predators within the means of grooming her. “The Story” is an unblinking portrait of how grooming works. The tiny boundary-breaches. The testing of the waters. The delicate wedge Mrs. G and Invoice put between Jenny and her dad and mom (“Your dad and mom are afraid of changing into free,” Invoice tells the kid). The creation of a conspiratorial “let’s inform one another secrets and techniques” environment. It is chilling. A physique double was used for the sexual scenes (and it is apparent it is a physique double, a sensible choice: it distances us sufficient so we do not fear concerning the youngster actress).
Catharsis and confrontation isn’t what “The Story” is about (which is why the principle confrontation feels prefer it’s slipped in from one other film altogether). “The Story” can also be not about mother-daughter battle alongside the strains of “Why did not you defend me?” Quite the opposite: Jennifer actually believes she remembers that summer time precisely. When her mom yells, “Why are you not indignant?” Jennifer does not have a solution. (Fox has mentioned she did not classify what occurred to her as “sexual abuse” till she was 45 years outdated. It generally takes that lengthy.) The entire actors are in a ravishing zone right here, together with the younger Nélisse, whose solemn face takes within the lit-from-within figures of Mrs. G and Invoice and it is clear she feels anointed, chosen, by these two glamorous adults with burnished pores and skin, intimate eyes, languid physique language weaving a hypnotic spell.
In The Expelled, Samuel Beckett writes, “Recollections are killing. So you will need to not consider sure issues, of these which are pricey to you, or slightly you will need to consider them, for in case you don’t there may be the hazard of discovering them, in your thoughts, little by little.” Dern performs a lady who, on a degree so deep it is out of attain, can not “consider sure issues.” Jennifer isn’t an avenging angel. She’s a confused girl making an attempt to recollect. “What do you bear in mind of that summer time?” “What did you assume, Mother, when Invoice picked me up on the door?” “Who’s that within the image? Why do not I bear in mind her?” As a result of Jennifer has by no means seen herself as a “sufferer,” as a result of she resists the time period altogether, it is troublesome for her to even have a look at different potentialities.
The ultimate second of “The Story” is devastating and likewise ambivalent. It exhibits what has been misplaced, but it surely additionally exhibits what has been gained.