“I am not a victim”, a young Jennifer Fox states into the camera defiantly, but her eyes quietly scream otherwise. So goes the most haunting moment of The Tale, a self-exploratory statement about filmmaker Jennifer Fox’s suppressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. While The Tale is the type of film to garner buzzwords from critics like “powerful” and “devastating”- and indeed both those descriptors are accurate- it’s also a fascinatingly frank look at the unreliability of memory.
Laura Dern plays the adult Jennifer Fox, a documentary filmmaker who seems to be living a content life pursuing her passion and enjoying a loving engagement. Until her mother (Ellen Burstyn) calls her, leaving a string of distressed phone messages about a disturbing English essay that Jennifer wrote in middle school. According to her mother (and the teacher that graded it), the essay details emotional manipulation and sexual abuse inflicted onto Fox by her riding instructor Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki) and her track coach Bill (Jason Ritter). Jennifer remembers it differently as her first romantic experience, and blows off her mother’s worry accordingly. But something about it doesn’t sit well with her, and we follow along as she looks back on that time, interrogating her own memories as often as actual people, uncovering that they differ vastly from the truth.
It’s hard while watching The Tale not to be reminded of how much more effective it would be in a cinematic setting. On a frequently-buffering, 13” MacBook screen, there is a certain emotional distance consistently at odds with Fox’s deeply intimate story. Nothing is stopping me from pausing its most disturbing moments and getting up to make myself a sandwich. Even so, The Tale manages to transcend its presentation, and it would be doing a grave disservice to Fox to claim her story doesn’t have impact because of its viewing medium. On the contrary, Fox’s film is quite brilliantly crafted, more an interview with her subconscious than a straightforward chronicle of horrors.
It’s worth noting that one semi-controversial choice Fox does make in The Tale is to depict the actual sexual abuse of her 13-year-old self in excruciating detail. Doing so was a bold decision, one that could have resulted in a seriously offensive misfire in the hands of a less qualified director (or one separated from the abuse), but ultimately it does give the film a confidently outraged voice. The film thankfully uses an adult body double, but the intended discomfort remains. As Fox states online, “People are ready to see the truth about just how grotesque this is”.
Both Laura Dern and Isabelle Nélisse, the actress playing the 13-year-old version of Fox, are perfectly suited in their roles. Nélisse brings a deeply disturbing, blank-faced innocence to the young Jenny Fox. Dern, on the other hand, conveys the plain strength of her director and breaks down the label of victim as something to hide from. Contrary to what one might expect from such a role, Dern never cries or shows what she’s feeling, instead internalizing her emotions and allowing them to drive the investigation into her trauma. Both of these performances, coupled with Fox’s personal touch, ground and shield the film from any inappropriate melodrama.
That personal touch is Fox channeling her skill as a documentary filmmaker inwards, taking a stern introspective questioning to her own memories. In one scene, she teaches her nonfiction university class that an effective way to unearth truth is to attack your subject, catch them off-guard. She takes such an approach to herself, at times berating her subconscious projections of Mrs. G and her 13-year-old self, pleading to know the truth.
This type of investigative journalism into Fox’s own mind lends a stark honesty to the film, completely free of the emotional exploitation present in other cinematic depictions of abuse. It’s clear from the opening title card, which admits that its true story is based on fallible memory, that Jennifer Fox is doing this first and foremost for herself. All throughout the film, she is coming to terms with her psychological denial that she was a victim of sexual abuse.
Remarkably, such an uncomfortably intimate account of one person addressing their trauma transcends The Tale into a universally therapeutic statement. Indeed, combing through user reviews of the film on Letterboxd or IMDB reveals the profound impact it has made on other victims of abuse. One sickening epiphany that Fox arrives at near her film’s conclusion is that there were others. There are always other victims, which is why it’s so crucial to speak up. It’s with this message that The Tale becomes an appropriate articulation of the #MeToo movement despite being realized months before Harvey Weinstein’s victims stepped forward.
While it’s not a perfectly-crafted film, the raw intimate power The Tale brings to its personal narrative makes it a defiant rallying cry for the #MeToo movement. It’s a shame that it hasn’t yet received the kind of attention that an Oscar season theatrical release would, because its lasting significance will likely be most felt in the inspiration it sows in countless other victims to stand up and acknowledge their monsters.