Few films are able to expertly navigate the pain of reconstructing who you thought you were. It is almost too intense to put to screen, and yet it demands to be seen. Jennifer Fox’s autobiographical drama The Tale achieves this while cinematically capturing the nauseating pain of refractive memories in a trauma survivor’s reconciliation with the truth.
Acting as writer and director, Fox crafts a brilliantly constructed screenplay that uses her experience in documentary filmmaking to capture her own rediscovery of an abusive childhood relationship with a much older man. The plot details these memories and scenes bend in real-time to account for her shifting perceptions of those memories.
The film finds its source in a short story Fox wrote when she was thirteen called ‘The Tale,’ which detailed the beauty and joy she saw in her first boyfriend, Bill (Jason Ritter), who was in his 40s at the time. After her mother (Ellen Berstyn) discovers the short story, Jennifer decides to investigate what actually happened while staying with her riding instructor, Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki), and Bill, her running coach. Her letter winds its way through the film, shedding new light on the abuse and how young Jenny excused and even revelled in what it gave her.
But memory is a fickle thing, and Fox uses this to her storytelling advantage. In the beginning, the girl who initially reads the short story (Jessica Sarah Flaum) gets replaced with the accurate thirteen-year-old version of Jenny (Isabelle Nélisse), and the scenes repeat revealing what actually happened. A whole new character is inserted more than halfway through the film. Characters back up in their tracks and snow rises through the air when Jennifer (Laura Dern) realises she got the season wrong. This is not a fixed story but one susceptible to blind spots and cover-ups.
Throughout the film, Jennifer asks questions of the other characters as a documentarian. In some of the most gut-wrenching scenes (and the film is full of them), Jennifer even interviews her thirteen-year-old self before, during and after the abuse in a mind-bending fantasy of reckoning.
Using documentarian tools that focus on uncovering and crafting pieces of different stories into a full narrative that has yet to be constructed, Fox explores this theme of how tightly we hold onto the narratives we create about ourselves so that we can survive. Jennifer tells the documentary filmmaking class she teaches, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live. So what’s your story? What story are you going to tell?”
When Jennifer’s fiance (Common) comes across the letters from Bill in their apartment and confronts Jennifer about her victimhood, Jennifer doesn’t want to hear it. Later, Jennifer confronts Jenny at thirteen after she breaks up with Bill. Jennifer tries to get her to see the horror of what Bill did to her.
Young Jenny insists that she isn’t the victim Jennifer wants her to be. “You see, I’m not the victim of this story. I’m the hero. He fell apart. Not me,” she says with a sense of pride. Jennifer realises she had frozen Bill in time, incapable of realising that he would continue to go on.
By shaping the narrative in a sort of never-ending circle that grows larger and smaller as facts are solidified and hazy memories become sharper, Fox expertly captures the distrust in reconciling hidden memories and narratives you construct to protect yourself from the pain of your past.
Fox crafts a whirlwind of an abuse story that does not pity the victim but rips the bandaid off. Fox uses a body double when depicting sexual content with young Jenny, but even still, it is almost too shocking to put on screen. But it must be witnessed, otherwise the horror of what Bill did (both the physical and the manipulative) would be lessened. Jennifer has to face it, and so does the viewer.
The scenes wherein present Jennifer confronts her younger self allow for such a pure cathartic fantasy that is both impossible and beautifully human. Fox gives herself the power back of crafting your own narrative after having it stolen and hidden. She depicts both the complex, bruised 13-year-old who doesn’t even recognise what has happened and the grown woman who can’t come to terms with what she knows she has to.
The Tale closes with a vignette of adult Jennifer sinking to the bathroom floor after confronting Bill all these years later. In an impossibly real moment, Young Jenny sits next to her looking up at her. We hear the opening lines from the short story once more, this time, they rattle the frame in a whole new way:
“I’ve met two very special people who I’ve come to love dearly. Get this, I’m part of them both.”’
Now we see Fox’s central image: conflicting memories and identities exist inside us all. While the universality of the image is what first hits home, it’s the fact that this incredibly honest image of sexual abuse survivors is so rarely granted honest screentime.
The Tale explores a psychological process in such depth, allowing the viewer to see Bill and Mrs. G how Jenny saw them and how Jennifer grows to. Too often narratives around sexual assault and trauma are not in the loving hands of the people who experience them. But because Jennifer Fox grants herself the power to retell her own messy story, she gives survivors the power to find the bravery to pursue their own honest reckoning.
by Kaleigh Howland
Kaleigh holds degrees in both journalism and theatre because she really can’t get enough of a good story. She recently moved to Los Angeles to try and be in some of the films she writes about. Her favorite films to wax poetic about include Assassination Nation (before Euphoria blew up and Sam Levinson became God), Booksmart, Paddington 2, and Veronica. If it’s got an honest perspective on girlhood, she’s into it. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter and Letterboxd.