Sometimes, before watching a new film, there’s a murky feeling that it’s going to be an intense experience. The Tale is one of those films. The HBO film follows Jennifer, played by Laura Dern, as she is forced to revisit the circumstances of her first “relationship” with an older man as a child after her mother discovers a story written by her younger self. If the premise isn’t powerful and sensitive enough, the film is based on the story written by the writer-director Jennifer Fox’s younger self at the time of her abuse. Primarily because of its plot, the film is not particularly “entertaining,” at moments even difficult, but it’s so powerful that it’s a must-watch.
In this era of the #MeToo movement and more people sharing their stories of sexual assault, it has become increasingly imperative to tackle the subject of rape and abuse in a way that doesn’t feel exploitative. Luckily, Fox’s The Tale is anything but that. The film largely remains in Dern’s point-of-view as she remembers the abusive relationship she had with her running coach, played by Jason Ritter, giving the audience direct insight into Jennifer’s inner turmoil as she tries to reconcile the truly terrible things that happened to her and how her own memories deceived her, going as far as misremembering what she looked like at age 13. Some of the most devastating scenes are when the adult Jennifer remembers how the–what she can now identify as traumatizing–events occurred. Through the writer/director’s real job occupation as a documentary filmmaker, Jennifer looks back at the abuse that transpired more objectively, like the audience, and asks the questions everyone wants to be answered. The confusion comes from Dern’s character figuring out what really happened to her as a child within the story her younger self created. Young and adult Jennifer push against each other over what their narrative will be and how they choose to survive, but, no matter what, it’s her story.
This heart-wrenching, magnetic film is about a woman finding her story and Laura Dern gives a magnificent performance while telling it. The pain Dern’s character endures is so palpable and deep, and at times, hard to watch. She allows Jennifer to be confused, to be angry, to hurt, to crumble and, by the end, take control. Dern brings viewers along on her character’s road to her finding her story and lets us feel everything she feels, whether we want to or not. Her ability to express every emotion that Jennifer encounters in this unthinkable, painful moment in her life can’t help but make you look at Dern with amazement. While Dern portrays adult Jennifer rediscovering her past, Isabelle Nelisse beautifully shows young Jenny desperately trying to hold on to the narrative she creates for herself to stay alive. Ritter, without validating his character’s inhumane actions, gives a chilly performance that could make anyone’s skin crawl. The most surprising, though, would be from Elizabeth Debicki as Mrs. G. Not because Debicki isn’t a great actress, but because, despite the riding coach’s inexcusable role in the matter, she is somehow able to bring some sort of humanity to the pitiful woman she plays.
When it was announced that The Tale was bought by HBO Films, I was surprised it was taking the cable television route given the rave reviews it received at Sundance and the stigma surrounding TV movies; after watching, however, it was, without a doubt, the right decision. Fox’s film is moving beyond measure, but I can’t imagine watching it with a crowd full of strangers. I almost saw it at Tribeca, and I’m glad I didn’t. Instead, I was able to watch it from the comfort of my bed on a Sunday morning and be fully engaged with what I was viewing. That being said, I hope, as the months when the film industry begins discussing this year’s best approaches, this film will not be forgotten simply because of how it was released. The Tale is a film that fully trusts its audience to join Jennifer on her journey to truth and survival, and a perfect example of how powerful our minds are, for better or for worse.