REVIEW: The Tale (2018)

Release Poster – HBO Films

The following is a review of The Tale — Directed by Jennifer Fox.

When Jennifer Fox was a thirteen year old girl, she had what she for the longest time would always refer to as her ‘first relationship.’ It was with an older man, she would explain. She had much love for him, she would claim. She had made use of that experience to get a good grade in English class, she would explain. She had fictionalized some of the story she had presented in class, she claimed. But none of those assertions or explanations told the whole story.

Jennifer Fox had been the victim of statutory rape. Jennifer Fox had been the victim of sexual abuse, when she was a young girl. But it didn’t truly occur to her until she rediscovered her old English class assignment, which compelled her to reexamine her memories and the story that she had told herself, in an attempt to make sense of the actual devastating experience that she had gone through.

Jennifer Fox’s story is based on a true story — it is based on the life of the director herself. She has kept her name in the final product so as to make people understand that it is a true story — so that people understand that there is a world in which someone abused can love the one abusing him or her. To make people understand that the stories we tell ourselves are sometimes buried on top of dark and disturbing experiences, Jennifer Fox’s first narrative film stayed as her story — the director is the character, and a lot of effort was clearly made to get the internal conflict that has built itself up in Fox to be apparent on screen.

The Tale is an incredibly well-cast film. Laura Dern plays Jennifer Fox as an adult, and she throws herself into the role and adds a remarkable sense of strength and determination to the part. Her character sticks to her story for the longest time, and Dern really does sell that sense of confused certainty well.

Jennifer Fox is also played by both Isabelle Nélisse at age 13 and, very briefly, by Jessica Sarah Flaum at age 15. A confusion about which one of these actresses resembled her at age 13 provides the film with its most powerful cinematic twist as suddenly her memory is rewound and replayed to match reality. It is one of the strongest moments in the film.

One of the more jarring touches of style from Jennifer Fox is the conscious decision to use a documentarian style to sit down certain characters and interview them about the events that happen. Now, this is Laura Dern speaking from behind the camera to the actors playing the real life but renamed characters as if they were real people. Although the purpose of this is to highlight the natural introspective investigation of a documentarian, it is a bit of a cinematic cheat that won’t work for all audiences, even though I thought it was a very powerful choice.

Although it is a film about maturity reexamining a youthful naiveté that pieces together different moments from the main character’s life, Dern’s performance doesn’t overshadow the supporting performances. Elizabeth Debicki and Ellen Burstyn are both very good, but the most brave adult performance in the film comes from Jason Ritter.

Ritter plays the man who violated the main character, and the actor bravely gives it his all in a role that is undoubtedly uncomfortable to play and, definitely, uncomfortable to watch. Ritter manages to make his character be extremely creepy and unpleasantly upfront about his feelings. Before you watch this film, though, you should know that this is not a film that cuts to black whenever bad things are happening. The Tale bravely and unflinchingly shows exactly what this monster did to young Jennifer.

The Tale is at once both incredibly tough to watch and an important film for the #MeToo-movement. One of the toughest things that Jennifer comes to find out is that people knew and they did not step in. Her teacher read her assignment for what it was, which is an account of a young woman having been taken advantage of, but, apparently, she never spoke out.

Her mother had her own suspicions about the whole thing, but her worries were abruptly dismissed by her father. And, perhaps, most shockingly, Jennifer’s grandmother saw her 13-year old granddaughter kiss a strange older man, but she never told anyone about it.

Jennifer Fox’s The Tale is a cinematic investigation of one’s memory, which is laid out like an introspective detective story. It is a dissection of internal conflict, and an honest takedown of immature naiveté. It is brave, it is important, and it is an unflinching achievement.

9 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen

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