As the #MeToo movement emerged in the wake of Hollywood sexual abuse revelations, Jennifer Fox must’ve been putting the finishing touches on her personal story. The Tale is about an incident from her childhood, and perhaps offers a way to understand the complexities of rape and child abuse that can be difficult to talk about.
At 48, Jennifer (Laura Dern) is a successful documentary filmmaker. She’s planning her wedding when her mother (Ellen Burstyn) finds some old writing of hers that suggests something disturbing. She doesn’t specify what though and Jennifer at first brushes it off. Remembering the past reopens the trauma she actually hadn’t dealt with yet.
Fox has an interesting technique for reconciling young Jennifer (Isabelle Nalisse)’s perspective, her selective adult recollections and what the adults at the time said. Dern will interrupt flashbacks to Interview the characters, thus filling in gaps that a child perhaps won’t understand or a guilty adult would omit. Details are hazy and shift within a single scene as Jennifer can’t confirm background.
The story concerns her equestrian coaches Bill (Jason Ritter) and Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki). It begins with getting too personal with 13-year-old students and escalates from there.
The most harrowing scenes to watch are the abuses between Ritter and Nelisse. Just filming simulations with a child would be too much, so fortunately Fox reveals in the end credits that every scene was filmed with an adult body double. I wouldn’t be surprised if HBO moves that tag to the beginning of the movie when they air it. At the Q&A Fox added that she filmed Nelisse’s reactions separately and gave her cues unrelated to the actual scene so she’d never have to come close to experiencing it.
To film it, Fox uses the right angles to be frank but not tasteless. This is how you address the reality of it. You can’t sugar coat it or cut away. But even seeing Ritter in bed with a 13-year-old is too much. Good thing he wasn’t actually in the same bed with her.
This is tough material but there’s nobody you’d rather go through it with than Laura Dern. There’s something about her that, even at her most vulnerable, feels like she can protect you. She and Nelisse run the gamut of emotions, as do their loved ones. Ritter has a particularly difficult role because you have to believe Bill thinks this is ok.
But if it sounds too tough to watch, it’s really not. Fox handles the material gently, and gradually so it becomes possible to get comfortable with the specifics so we can talk about them.
The Tale needs to be told. Fox shouldn’t have had to wait this long, but it sounds like it was a process of self-discovery and then growing as a filmmaker to deal with it through her art.