HBO has had two TV movies deal with the difficult subject of child sexual abuse but in very different ways. “The Tale” is more experimental (and much more personal), zeroing in on the abused in a shockingly intimate way, while “Paterno” takes a broader, docu-drama approach to covering the after-effects of abuse and the real conspiracy at Penn State to cover it up.
The Tale…Laura Dern is an adult woman re-experiencing memories of her early-teen sexual abuse. Jason Ritter (convincingly against type as an alpha-bohemian whose sunny smile hides a predatory mind) is her abuser, while Elizabeth Debicki also explores a new dimension as Ritter’s adulterous girlfriend and the woman who faciliates the relationship between Ritter and young girls, seemingly procuring them for him. The experimental style is meant to plug you right into the murky, shifting memories of child sexual abuse, and I can’t say it’s the most comfortable place in the world, but it is extraordinarily effective. A wide-awake, empathetic exploration you won’t soon forget, even if the movie predictably cops out at the ending and the best scenes are often set in the past–not in Dern’s contemporary time period. Grade: B+
Paterno…I know very little about Penn State football or Joe Paterno. [When the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke it was often confusingly reported, especially for people who weren’t already familiar with Sandusky’s role in the Penn State football program or the legend of “Joe Pa.”] And I’m not sure this film really illuminated more about the scandal than what you could get in the headlines of the time. Whereas “The Tale” zeroes in on the actual victims and scenes of queasy abuse, we barely see Jerry Sandusky and only a few scenes of the victims years after the abuse. There’s a real distance between Sandusky’s crimes and the movie we’re watching, which is really only about the worst week of Joe Paterno’s life, and since we really don’t know what Joe knew and when, the movie is forced to draw conclusions that may not be accurate. [Riley Keough’s reporter gets a tip in the closing scene of the movie that is potentially fabricated, but ends the film on a note of finality.] Personally, I think “Joe Pa” deliberately turned a blind eye to real sex crimes to protect a friend–and that’s certainly the conclusion the movie draws–but I’ll also admit that I don’t know that for a fact, and watching this film is as long as I’ve “investigated” this case. Grade: B-