The Tale is a powerful and brave film about child sexual abuse and grooming, based on the writer-director’s own personal experience. Much more than a personal catharsis, it addresses the distortions of memory and denial in a way I haven’t seen before. I walked out of the cinema feeling devastated and upset but also marveling at its directness and nuance.
The film starts by stating “The story you are about to see is true—as far as I know”. It’s the story of 48 year old Jennifer Fox (Laura Dern) reconsidering a sexual relationship that she had with a forty-year-old man when she was only thirteen. Rather than the ‘beautiful experience’ that she considered it at the time, she comes to recognise it as sexual abuse.
This reconsideration is triggered by a concerned phone call from her mother (Ellen Burstyn), who found a handwritten story, the Tale, that young Jenny composed for class when she was thirteen in 1973.
The autobiographical story describes Jenny’s (Isabelle Nélisse) previous summer, mostly spent at a horseriding school run by Mrs G (Elizabeth Debicki). Feeling anonymous at home, Jenny increasingly spends her time at the centre where she experiences affirmation and affection. She develops a strong attachment to Mrs G and to Bill (Jason Ritter) who works at the riding school and is Jenny’s running coach. Gradually Bill grooms Jenny and they begin a ‘relationship’ that becomes sexual.
After initially denying that there was anything wrong, and retorting that her mother was just upset because she had an ‘older’ boyfriend, the adult Jennifer begins to contemplate the events of her childhood and readdress her memories.
The film alternates between flashbacks from Jennifer’s summer memories and her present day response to them. The flashbacks are mostly chronological, so we see how young Jenny is slowly seduced and abused. Alongside that, we see adult Jennifer responding to her memories, trying to come to terms with what happened and seeking out people from her past to help her investigate and verify her recollections.
Vitally, the flashbacks are not treated as necessarily truthful. Mrs G and Bill are recalled as beautiful and perfect, almost with a literal glow in the blue skied sunshine, the idealised memory of an entranced girl. Jennifer starts to interrogate her memory’s distortions. For example, Jennifer’s initial recollections of her younger self are suddenly fractured when she looks at old photos and realises that in a subtle piece of self-deception she is recalling her thirteen year old self in her fifteen year old body. She had convinced herself that she was more mature at the time than she really was. The flashbacks are reset, and then replay with a younger actress.
As the grooming leads to sexual abuse, the camera doesn’t flinch from the disturbing scenes of a middle-aged old man having sex with a thirteen year old girl. Although the images are not explicit and the credits highlight that body doubles are used, their frankness is extremely upsetting. They aren’t violent; Jenny goes along with Bill’s requests, albeit without much enthusiasm, and this somehow makes them even more disturbing to watch. That said, I think the frank depiction is necessary and the horror counterpoints Jenny’s memories of Bill’s tenderness and ‘love’. They help the audience understand how adult Jennifer is now resetting her own response to the events.
As Jennifer looks at photos, meets old friends and rereads letters that she wrote at the time, her memories are filled out. She rediscovers significant people from her childhood who she had entirely forgotten. But not everything can be discovered.
Some of the most effective moments in this film are when adult Jennifer has conversations with her childhood self. This is a useful cinematic device. Jennifer wants to understand, but sometimes she just can’t find the answers and some things are out of reach. In many ways thirteen year old Jenny is a different person, and her motives and choices are mysterious and lost in time. In one powerful conversation, Jenny angrily insists that she is not a victim, that from her child’s perspective the ‘relationship’ was consensual and if anyone was the victim it was Bill when it ended.
This also applies to the other people involved: when adult Jennifer questions the motives and complicity of Mrs G, the woman from the past stares straight into the camera and states ‘you will never know me’. One thing that director Fox never discovers, in the film or in real life, is ‘why’. Why did these people do what they did?
Laura Dern (Certain Women, The Last Jedi, Blue Velvet) is magnificent as the adult Jennifer. Her performance is subtle and nuanced as she tries to understand her conflicted responses to what happened. Despite the turmoil, Dern plays Jennifer as just about keeping control while grappling with a multitude of questions and conflicted emotions.
Jason Ritter’s performance as Bill is equally impressive, seductive and tender through Jenny’s eyes, and yet despicably manipulative in the eyes of the audience. Elizabeth Debicki is luminous as ‘Mrs G’, the woman who ran the horseriding centre and probably was complicit in the abuse. She has a perfect balance of captivating allure, authority and opacity.
Ellen Burstyn is exceptional as Nettie, Jennifer’s mother. Burstyn is best known for Requiem for a Dream, and for a remarkable early flourish including The Exorcist, The Last Picture Show and Scorcese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Hear Anymore.
Nettie is frank, level-headed and unsentimental, and her character’s relationship with her daughter is complicated. Nettie gives Jennifer momentum and support to explore her memories and face up to the people involved, while simultaneously giving her daughter the space she needs. She will push Jennifer to uncomfortable places, and in many ways she is the driving force, as well as the inadvertent initiator by discovering the child’s story in a storage box.
It’s an incredible performance, not least because there are complex issues of guilt and blame to be settled between mother and daughter. Nettie had her suspicions when Jenny was spending weekends with Bill, but she didn’t act and instead allowed herself to be talked out of her concerns by her husband. On the other hand, young Jenny felt she lacked attention from her mother (she was one seven children) and Bill took advantage of that need for love when grooming her, displacing blame from Bill to Nettie.
It’s interesting to compare Nettie with Jennifer’s fiancé Martin, who is appalled by the revelation, but is angry and confused by Jennifer’s defensiveness and her unwillingness to immediately recognise it as abuse. Martin can’t understand that for Jennifer it’s not black-and-white: at the time Jenny believed what she did with Bill was consensual, and Martin’s outrage seems like an attack on her. It takes Martin time to realise this and support Jennifer.
In the Q&A after the screening, Fox said that the film could never have been a documentary. There was no ‘evidence’ or footage that she could put on screen, and a central part of the story was the distortions and denials of memory. As the opening line about made it clear, this film was as much about that act of recollection than objective truth. However, Fox said that much of the dialogue in the present day segments were accurate and verbatim. She and her mother recorded and transcribed their conversations, and while she never wore a wire when interviewing people, she transcribed the conversations from memory immediately. The film is incredibly powerful and this is partly because the audience knows that it has a first-hand truthfulness.
Although I found this film incredibly disturbing, I’m very glad I saw it. Its depiction of childhood grooming was convincing and the film demonstrates how such awful situations could occur. Also, I think I understand a little better the complexities of confronting traumatic events from the past, dealing with displaced guilt, with self-deception and distorted memory. Its power comes from it’s unflinching honesty and nuance.
Although I was fortunate to attend the global cinema premiere of The Tale, it will be most widely seen on TV. In America it’s been shown on HBO and it will premiere on Sky Atlantic on 5th June. Fox said that she made the film to start a conversation. The film’s website has further information on the issues explored in the film, including support material and how to arrange group screenings. It’s an incredible piece of filmmaking, and I hope it’s seen widely.Follow @davefilmblog