'The Tale,' A Visionary Portrait Of Childhood Sexual Abuse, Is 2018's First Great Movie

Writer-director Jennifer Fox's autobiographical drama tells a complex story of rape, power and warped memories.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

On Saturday morning, Jane Fonda, Gloria Allred and Tessa Thompson led evangelizing cries in the name of women’s rights during Sundance’s snow-drenched Respect Rally. About an hour later, “The Tale,” a provocative Laura Dern movie about sexual power dynamics, premiered to a standing ovation. Three days into the festival, it’s by far the standout jewel ― an absorbing, articulate capsule that underscores the dynamics unfolding in the days of #MeToo.

Much will be said about the timeliness of “The Tale,” a dramatization of writer-director Jennifer Fox’s adolescent affair with two adult athletic trainers who provided an ostensible paradise away from her dispiriting home life. Just as much should be said of its craftsmanship. Fox mines her background as a documentarian (she helmed the acclaimed “Beirut: The Last Home Movie” and “An American Love Story,” among others) to forge a framing device that treats memories ― those relics we hold so dear ― as unreliable sources. Employed to depict decades-old sexual assault, the tactic interrogates the ways a survivor can convince herself that what she experienced was something she invited, or at least something she accepted as an authentic emotional buttress.

Dern portrays Fox, better known as Jenny, a globetrotting journalist who’s comfortable camouflaging herself in unfamiliar environments to capture lives not often glorified. Her saga begins in earnest when her mother, played by Ellen Burstyn, discovers a short story Jenny wrote at 13. “I’d like to begin this story by telling you something so beautiful,” it reads. But what follows, in hindsight, is anything but.

Jenny’s tale recounts what began as exuberant self-discovery: She found a haven in a horseback riding instructor named Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki) and a celebrated running coach named Bill (Jason Ritter). Together, Mrs. G and Bill mentored teenagers in the verdant Virginia countryside. But they oversaw far more than Jenny’s outdoor recreation; they coxed her into thinking she was their lover, taking her virginity and cajoling her with youthful sweet nothings.

“I want to save you from all those stupid young boys out there,” Bill coos as Jenny’s wide, callow eyes stare back at him, at last finding the attention her aloof parents denied her.

“The Tale” is a memoir in big-screen format, one that’s likely to spark debates about both its content and its stylistic choices. For my money, it’s stunning. The ways Jenny, at 48, romanticized her impressions of Bill and Mrs. G ― she’s always thought of him as her first boyfriend ― are revealed in shards, past and present, melding to demonstrate her warped memories. At the risk of hyperbole, I’ve never seen a movie like this. Fox pushes the limitations of narrative cinema, presenting Jenny’s undercooked remembrances as fact and then correcting them with delicate, psychologically deft subtlety. The adult Jenny and the 13-year-old Jenny (played by Isabelle Nélisse) sometimes break the fourth wall, addressing each other to exchange contradicting recollections. Was Bill raping Jenny?

She doesn’t think so, until she investigates further, tracking down her old mentors to better understand what she went through. Scenes glide from one to the next, with Jenny’s short story ― recited in fragmented voice-over by Dern ― anchoring Fox’s exploration. A filmmaker introducing so many meta conceits is a gamble, and here it pays off in spades.

“But one line in Jenny’s short story is the most searing of all, crystallizing the power of #MeToo, which seeks to correct what was commonplace in the ’70s: “I find that I trust him so much I never understand where he’s leading me. Once we’re that far, I never know how to say no.””

Some may protest the depiction of Bill fornicating with young Jenny, but the film is never exploitative about its presentation. It’s shot mostly in closeup so as to telegraph emotions instead of sensuality. A title card at the end reveals that an adult body double stood in for Nélisse during sex scenes with Ritter, and at the Q&A onstage after the premiere, Fox said she used verbal cues so Nélisse, 11 at the time of the shoot, wouldn’t need to feign copulation during her closeups. (“Pretend you’re being stung by a bee,” for example.) To wit, these scenes ― difficult to watch but vital ― underscore Fox’s wish to delineate the way the director “constructed a story to survive.”

Jenny is no Lolita, whose trauma is filtered mostly through the lens of her abuser.

Throughout the movie, the adult Jenny, attempting to justify her past, says, “But that was the ’70s.” Nobody talked about sexual assault or power conflicts with the import that today’s dialogue assumes. But one line in Jenny’s short story is the most searing of all, crystallizing the power of #MeToo, which seeks to correct what was commonplace in the ’70s: “I find that I trust him so much I never understand where he’s leading me. Once we’re that far, I never know how to say no.”

Bill’s is textbook cult behavior, but Jenny’s naivety and appetite for affection cloud her judgment. We see that unfurl with a sophistication that stretches beyond a hashtag or a headline-friendly social movement. This is one woman’s personal history, divorced from the trappings of any cultural talking points. (Inevitably, prepare for a storm of think-pieces.)

Fox said at the Q&A that Dern signed on for “The Tale” a year and a half before the movie was financed ― a proactive move that signals her dedication to the story. It paid off. The film is cathartic and angry, but never preachy. It’s the work of an artist who has spent her life seeking the truth and learning from the past. It’s a meditation worthy of the highest praise. Most signficantly, it’s a salve.

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