Jennifer Fox has already made a name for herself at the Sundance Film Festival as a superb documentarian, but this year she brought her first narrative feature to the fest, an astonishing, repellent, and utterly essential look at Fox’s own childhood sexual abuse at the hands of an adult man. It’s a potent, needling look at trauma and the stories people tell themselves to survive it and how the intrusion of cold reality on these stories can hurt nearly as much as the trauma itself. The Tale has seared itself into my brain.
Laura Dern plays the film’s version of Fox, reminded of her abuse when her mother (Ellen Burstyn) finds the story she wrote about it for school in storage. When Jennifer was 13, she spent a summer at a horse-riding and running camp, where she was groomed by the riding instructor Mrs G (Elizabeth Debicki) and handed off to running coach Bill (Jason Ritter) to be repeatedly raped. Jennifer has created a false memory of the experience, remembering herself as a mature-for-her-age 15 year old who genuinely loved Bill, and it’s only once she’s shown a picture of herself at 13, still clearly a child, that she begins to recognise the extent of the horror.
Had any other filmmaker brought this story to life, it would almost certainly have been hideously exploitative, but in using her own experience Fox creates a layered story with so much to say outside of the physical assaults themselves. Her relationship with the idea of victimhood and the wilful obliviousness of the people in her life are slowly but surely fully explored, every scene illuminating something new, insightful while horrifying and a vital educational piece for anyone who cannot directly relate to her experience.
Fox presents the sex frankly, but not explicitly, and a disclaimer at the end assuring you that the scenes were performed by an adult body double hardly renders them any less blood-curdling. Bill’s conversations with young Jennifer (Isabelle Nelisse) are truly vile, and her stifled bafflement at his immensely ugly words is heartrending. Yet, while these moments may be the most properly sickening, the feeling of nausea starts a lot earlier, every line from Mrs G as the predator’s assistant weighted with a double meaning that the audience picks up on long before even the adult Jennifer does.
Every line in Fox’s script is carefully chosen – there’s never a wasted word as the film builds towards a conclusion that manages to find moments of catharsis that you never would have thought possible. Memories, both embellished and accurate, start mingling with reality, and Fox grants herself the luxury of getting to interview her abusers and herself; them frozen in time in 1973, her with the hindsight she now has to ask the questions she needs answered. Very strikingly, no one apologises or regrets anything – to acknowledge the gravity of what actually happened would be tantamount to a death sentence.
Young Jennifer needs some sort of agency in her own story to survive, so she creates it for herself, and Nelisse does a brilliant, tragic job of showing how this festering lie just compounds the destructiveness of Bill and Mrs G’s actions. Her innocence becomes distance, her curiosity and creativity killed and turned into something colder. It’s a brutal role, and Fox deserves huge plaudits for getting this kind of performance from such a young actor. As the adult Jennifer, Dern is of course sensational, falling apart at the seams, but never with cheap histrionics.
Every part of The Tale feels deeply, distressingly real, and Dern as the anchor is an essential part of that. Her growing quiet desperation in her search for answers is infectious, and the gnawing anxiety of her uncertainty in her own life story will stick with you for a long time after the credits roll. Debicki and Ritter excel in very difficult roles, especially Ritter, who has to humanise one of the most detestable villains ever put to screen. Burstyn is terrific as Jennifer’s shaken mother – one innocuous parenting mistake she makes ends up as a key catalyst in Jennifer going to stay with Bill – but also the source of the very rare moments of levity.
HBO picked up The Tale – and it will air on Sky Atlantic in the UK – and though the first 20 minutes have a visual style reminiscent of a TV movie, Fox soon moves past that into something more decidedly cinematic. Memories drift between hazy and clear, some 1973 scenes altering on the fly as adult Jennifer learns new information. It’s a powerful and somewhat sinister deconstruction of the unreliability of recollection, especially recollection of trauma in what is, a bit ironically, the most aggressively memorable film since Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here.
The Tale will not be for everyone. Its lack of squeamishness will turn away a lot of viewers for whom certain scenes will simply be too much, and was introduced with a trigger warning when it screened at Sundance London. But, if you think you can manage it, it is a masterpiece of empathetic, deeply personal human drama.