DIRECTED BY

Jennifer Fox

 

STARRING

Laura Dern

Isabelle Nélisse

Elizabeth Debicki

Jason Ritter

Frances Conroy

John Heard

Common

Ellen Burstyn

 

RATED

NR

 

RELEASED IN

2018

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 54 Mins.

Laura Dern and Isabelle Nélisse in 2018's "The Tale."

The Tale July 2, 2018  

relationship. It was what helped make her a "grown-up." She had kept it a secret because she never believed there was anything wrong with it. And because the experience was so special to her, she did not want anything to detract from it.

 

The Tale is set in that 2008. In it, Fox is played by the sympathetic Laura Dern. (As many other writers have, I will refer to the movie’s writer and director as Fox, and the character in the film as Jennifer.) When we first meet Jennifer, she is content and confident. She has established herself as an acclaimed documentarian; is in a loving relationship with a man named Martin (Common), to whom she’s been engaged for three years; and holds a satisfying professorial job at a prestigious university.

 

An unexpected voicemail from her mother, Nettie (Ellen Burstyn), though, shakes up this poise. Nettie tells Jennifer that she has stumbled on an essay the latter wrote in middle school, and is concerned by its content. In the piece, which she had passed off as fiction, Jennifer dramatized what she considered a positive sexual relationship with her coach, Bill (Jason Ritter). Nettie is disturbed, and this is furthered by a note on the back of the essay written by Jennifer’s teacher. If any of this is true, the educator wrote, I’d say that you were taken advantage of.

 

Jennifer scoffs at her mother. This is exactly why she didn’t reveal what had happened to her so many years ago. It was a different time back then, Jennifer says. It was the 1970s. The relationship was, in her mind, consensual. This wasn’t rape. This was a defining, formative sexual experience.

 

In flashbacks, Jennifer imagines herself as a self-assured, mature 13-year-old (Jessica Sarah Flaum). For years, the narrative she’s gone with is that she was wise beyond her years, and that she was perfectly capable of making decisions on her terms.

 

But after re-reading the essay multiple times, and after loved ones begin expressing worry after they read the paper, too, things start shifting. Slowly, the star of Jennifer’s flashbacks is not that self-assured, mature young woman but rather a quiet, vulnerable, clearly prepubescent girl (Isabelle Nélisse). Bill, along with the woman who worked closely with him in the ‘70s, the catlike Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki), begins to look less and less like a caring, sensitive figure but rather a predator.

 

Understandably, this rattles our protagonist. For so long, she had remembered her “relationship” with Bill fondly. But day by day, the understanding that this belief has only been subconscious self-deception strengthens. The “it was a different time” excuse now looks like the thin, decades-strong justification for sexual abuse that it’s always been. The fact that no one bothered to look more deeply into what was going on, despite there being so many red flags, says a lot about the secondhand horrors of rape culture. (Jennifer's grandma more or less knew what was going on; the English teacher could have stepped in, too, but didn't.) This wasn’t a rebellious affair with an older man. This was statutory rape.

 

The Tale finds universality in its specificity. Though the film is consistent with what happened to Fox, with only the names of key characters changed, it is undoubted that many survivors of abuse subconsciously employ this same sort of self-deceit as a coping mechanism; reshaping one’s narrative to cushion one’s traumas isn’t uncommon.

 

The way Fox presents Jennifer’s unraveling is sagacious, and increasingly eerie the more the romanticized sheen the latter has perpetuated in her mind begins chipping. The jarring shift between the actresses playing Jennifer is a simple artistic trick but is incredibly unsettling — it proves that our memories do not always line up with the truth.

 

There are sporadic scenes during which Jennifer envisions interviewing the people in her life at the time of the abuse in talking-head style — including herself — and they add a personal flourish. That Jennifer’s coming to terms with what happened to her is broken down mentally through the art form which most drives her is a subtle, but momentous, touch.

 

The Tale is a brave, shrewd movie, anchored by Dern’s brave performance and its writer-director's candor. So rarely do we see a filmmaker utilize their personal histories in moviemaking, let alone with material this sensitive. Although we’re living in a period more conscious of the seriousness, and horrifying aftereffects, of sexual abuse than ever, there are relatively few feature-length movies that deal with the topic in this nuanced a way. I'm wont to believe The Tale might persuade other filmmakers to follow Fox’s lead. A-

T

hough it is set almost a decade before the #MeToo reckoning that defined much of 2017, the documentarian Jennifer Fox’s first fictional feature-length, The Tale, is very much a product of the era. It is based on a true story, but the twist is that the story being told is Fox’s own. In 1973, at the age of 13, she was groomed and then sexually abused by her track coach.

 

Until around 2008, however, she had never considered this. In her mind, what happened with this much-older man was a casual, sexy