The Tale, 2017.
Directed by Jennifer Fox.
Starring Laura Dern, Isabelle Nelisse, Jason Ritter, Elizabeth Debicki, Ellen Burstyn, and Common.
Documentary maker Jennifer seems to have it all until a story she wrote at the age of 13 is discovered by her mother. It’s about a special relationship with an adult and Jennifer realises that what’s in the story is nothing like her personal memories of what happened. She sets out to find the people involved and discover if the stories she’d told herself were actually true.
“Brave” is probably the first word that comes to mind to describe Jennifer Fox’s The Tale, which opened this year’s Sundance London. Yet it’s probably not the right one. It sounds unintentionally patronising and she probably wouldn’t accept it. But it takes a special kind of courage – nay, pure guts – to tell the world that you’ve been sexually abused as a teenager. Even more extraordinary is that she’s made a feature film about it.
The Tale is, essentially, Fox’s own story, of how she experienced abuse in her early teens. Today, she’s a documentary maker but has no doubts that her film had to be fictionalised because she wanted to explore the whole concept of memory – how it can seem so clear yet be so unreliable, how it shifts and changes over time and how it can turn out to be simply wrong. And, given that the storyline is based on her own memory, a more factual approach could have thrown up all manner of practical problems.
The adult Jennifer is played by Laura Dern and it’s her elderly mother (Ellen Burstyn) who discovers a story that her daughter wrote in her early teens. It takes a while for the mother to understand it but for Jennifer her own coded language doesn’t match her recollections of what happened. The film glides seamlessly between the past and present so we not only see the older Jennifer tracking down the other people involved in the story, but her younger self (Isabelle Nelisse) becoming increasingly closer to Bill (Jason Ritter), the coach at her riding stables who emotionally manipulated her and, ultimately, abused her.
Today the subject is discussed more openly, but it’s still something of a taboo. And the film is a hard, uncompromising watch, one that determinedly refuses to hide the realities of what transpires between the young Jennifer and Bill, who is in his early 40s. We’re spared few physical details, even if not everything is shown, but equally disturbing are the emotional tactics he uses to, in today’s parlance, groom the vulnerable, lonely girl. Most distressing of all is that, for him, what he’s doing isn’t just acceptable but normal. On one occasion when he collects her from home to take her to the stables, he brings flowers for her mother. And when Jennifer decides to call a halt to their “relationship”, he weeps.
An enormously powerful and shocking watch, its approach at times is sometimes confrontational, with characters speaking directly to the audience, revealing their innermost thoughts. This becomes especially important when the young Jennifer makes her final speech to the camera and declares she’s not a victim. What we hear are the words of the older woman coming out of the young girl’s mouth and, somehow, there’s still a subtle sense that she doesn’t wholly believe what she’s saying. Even after all those years.
As the present day Jennifer, Dern gives stand-out performance, one that could easily define her career. Newcomer Isabelle Nelisse is astonishing as the younger Jennifer, struggling physically and emotionally with her situation, one that wasn’t of her own making. Deeply troubling, painful and emotionally raw, The Tale should go to the top of everybody’s must-see list. It’s made with utter conviction and the sense never totally goes away that the Jennifer we see on the screen and the one behind the camera are both still struggling with the past. Grab all the courage you can and watch it. Everybody should.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★★★★ / Movie: ★★★★
Freda Cooper. Follow me on Twitter.