“I’d like to begin this story by telling you something so beautiful. I’ve met two very special people, whom I’ve come to love dearly. Imagine a woman who is married and a man who is divorced. Get this: I’m part of them both. I’m lucky enough to share in their love.”
The Tale, written and directed by Jennifer Fox and currently available through HBO, is based on her own true experiences and is not a movie made for easy catharsis in the #MeToo era. It’s a harrowing watch, an in-depth depiction of Fox’s coming to terms with her experience with sexual assault as a 13-year old.
It will make your skin crawl. It will make you cry. It will make you tremendously uncomfortable. It’s one of this year’s finest films and destined to remain amongst the best movies for educating about the experience of a child being groomed for assault as well as the way a victim deals with the events decades later — the amorphous form of memory, the residual suffering, the complexities of reckoning with it.
Jennifer (Laura Dern) is a documentarian who lives in New York, teaches at a university and is in a committed relationship with Martin (Common), a fellow filmmaker. Her mother, Nettie (Ellen Burstyn), discovers a story written by a young Jennifer called “The Tale,” which details a relationship she had at the age of 13 with her track coach, Bill (Jason Ritter), and Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki). Nettie recognizes the story immediately as a 13-year-old girl being taken advantage of; Jennifer insists it was a boyfriend / girlfriend relationship.
“Can you just sit with my own memories?” she asks her mom. Fox takes on a non-formalist approach to telling her story; it’s the only approach possible. As adult Jennifer reads her story and revisits the people of her youth she remembers, slowly, in pieces. In some instances, she speaks to her younger self, portrayed by Isabelle Nélisse at 13 and Jessica Sarah Flaum at 15; as powerful as Dern is, it’s relative newcomer Nélisse who shoulders the film)
Jennifer’s present and past bleed into each other visually. The process she’s going through is not simple. It is not a linear progression. She denies, she investigates, she remembers, she speaks to former riding partners, she speaks to Mrs. G, and eventually she does what she can to confront Bill. Understanding her past is an amorphous experience. And it has no simple conclusion.
The grooming sequences with Bill are disturbing not just for their understated and horrifying content; “Younger boys wouldn’t do this for you,” he tells her, in a soft, “non-threatening” tone that carries all the violence in the world. They’re disturbing from the way Fox, cinematographer Denis Lenoir and editors Alex Hall, Gary Levy and Anne Fabini remarkably intercut Jennifer’s memories (of the two of them sitting on a fur rug or a couch under blankets by a crackling fire) with shots of the same room — no fire, darker, dingier. What really happened? Through their filmmaking, they are able to show Jennifer re-contextualizing memories long repressed. Was it really an adult relationship she had had, ahead of her years, as she remembered for so long? No.
Bill and Mrs. G’s methodical manipulation of young Jennifer never edges over into exaggeration. Declarations of friendship, sexual equality and adulthood to a lonely 13-year-old girl desperate to find a life special to her outside of her rowdy home life – all are recognizable and depicted here with a patience often lacking. This isn’t a PSA with a simple “watch out for the creepy coach” letter graphic at the end of a scene or a “now this is how you should have done it differently!” postscript. It does not diminish young Jennifer and, in doing so, does not simplify the common cruelty of Mrs. G and Bill.
The Tale is the kind of movie that requires a trigger warning. In a way, the opening title card stating that these are Jennifer Fox’s actual experiences is almost insufficient. It is so well crafted, so empathetic, so in-depth and real – so thoughtful. Not for casual viewing and highly recommended.