The Tale (2018)

8 Dec

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The story you are about to see is true…as far as I know.”

That’s the narrating line of dialogue that opens writer-director Jennifer Fox’s “The Tale,” and it reminds us of the infamous quote, “Truth is in the eye of the beholder.” “The Tale” is Fox’s account of an incident that happened to her when she was very young (in her early teenage years, even), how she came to terms with it, and how she tried to find answers from other people who were involved. The answers are not clear from the others, but she knows what happened to herself.

“The Tale” is documentarian Fox’s fictional telling based on a story she wrote at age 13…that was based on her experiences as a victim of sexual abuse. It’s a film that is as powerful as it is uncomfortable. And it’s undoubtedly one of the most important films in recent memory for that very reason.

Laura Dern stars in a truly excellent performance standing in for Fox, playing a documentary filmmaker named Jennifer. She seems to be doing well for herself, enjoying a nice Manhattan apartment with her long-time fiancé (Common), working hard on doc projects, and teaching non-fiction film at a local university. But even before her overprotective mother (Ellen Burstyn) demands an explanation after discovering an essay she wrote at age 13, we begin to suspect some uneasiness within her, as she seems somewhat closed-off and self-loathing and is more interested in her documentary subjects. (Commentary!)

What is this essay her mother found from decades ago? Well, it’s about a “relationship” that developed between 13-year-old “Jenny” (Isabelle Nelisse) and her “older” boyfriend. Upon rereading the essay, Jennifer remembers just how “old” this man was. He was her professional coach from an intensive horse training camp she attended: Bill Allens (played in flashbacks by Jason Ritter and in present-day by John Heard), who was in his 40s when he began sexually grooming Jenny before he would “make love” with her.

As Jennifer starts to read more and more into her past, she realizes the true terror of what came upon her by a man she had come to trust and admire at such a young age. Being an investigative documentarian, she uses her skills to look further into what happened that fateful summer over 30 years ago. “The Tale” is able to move from present-day events to flashbacks, as she’s learning more about what truly happened and what MAY have happened, without a hint of clumsiness. There’s one bit I loved in which we’re first taken back to that summer when Jennifer was 15, when she’s corrected that she was 13 and thus we’re returned to the same scenes (only played by a different actress than who we started with)—that lets us know right away that truth and memory, especially in a case like this, don’t always go hand in hand. The more Jennifer realizes the harsh difference between what she thought was happening in the moment and what actually happened in hindsight, the more she can’t deny of the hauntings of her past and how it affected her even at age 48.

What happened with 13-year-old Jenny, 40something Bill, and the tall, beautiful and exotic horseback-riding coach Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki), with whom Bill was having an affair, is not as “beautiful” as Jenny would like to believe, though we can understand how she would have felt that way. In her mind, she was a girl who felt older than she was, being taken seriously by two mature, classy adults who gave her attention and let her in on their secrets. (To show even more of how different 13-year-old Jenny was from 48-year-old Jennifer, we even see the two interact with each other, as Jennifer shares a “conversation” with her past self and tries to recollect and understand what really happened with Jenny.) It’s fascinating to see Jennifer reconnect with people from her past, such as Mrs. G (played in present-day by Frances Conroy) and other women who attended the camp as girls, and yet it’s also incredibly disturbing when certain points of truth rise to the surface…

In making the film, Jennifer Fox makes the brave choice by not merely hinting at the physical abuse she encountered at a young age—she instead takes special care in showing us the horrific seduction from an adult man to a young girl and the eventual physical action, using adult body doubles for the rape scenes. She wants us to know what she felt, both then and now. And we’re with her fictional counterpart, played brilliantly by Laura Dern, every step of the way, right down to the moment in which she confronts present-day Bill head-on. It’s painful and uncompromising and equally brilliant and powerful.

What we have in “The Tale” is a “tale” of people who believe in what they feel in an attempt to shield themselves from the true harshness that they’re committed to. Jenny believed she was experiencing love for the first time, Bill believed in his own sick and creepy methods, Mrs. G believed in her reasons for having her own extramarital matters, and so on. Jennifer begins to believe that the faults of her haunted subconscious were caused by her own doing, when in actuality, it was the people who used her and took advantage of her that were responsible. The journey she embarks on will determine who she was as Jenny, who she is as Jennifer, and how she got from there to here. “The Tale” is one of the best films of 2018; one I will definitely not forget anytime soon.

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