The Tale: “emotionally harrowing”

The first “fictional” film from documentarian Jennifer Fox, The Tale, opens with a title card declaring that the story you are about to see is based on real events. Immediately, the boundaries between the fictional and the real are blurred. While it’s not unusual for directors to draw from their own experiences when film-making, The Tale is explicitly autobiographical.

The protagonist is a documentarian called Jennifer Fox (a searing performance from Laura Dern). The film opens with her mother (Ellen Burstyn) phoning Jennifer, insisting that she read a document she’s posted; a hand-written story that Jennifer wrote for school when she was thirteen. It’s an account of Jennifer’s “relationship” with a running coach in the summer of 1972. Like The Tale itself, this story is a lightly-fictionalised account of true events, a narrative which a thirteen-year-old girl told to make sense of what happened to her – one in which she is the heroine in a short-lived romance. As the adult Jennifer reads, she is deeply disturbed. Encouraged by her mother, she starts investigating, exploring both her own memories of that time and tracking down the people she knew back then. Although used to a version of events in which her first boyfriend was simply older than her, gradual revelations and returning memories snag against this narrative: Jennifer slowly, painfully, begins to reconceptualise herself as a subject of abuse.

Fox’s film is about memories and identity as much as it is about stories. Many philosophers have given memory a central role in “personal identity”: what makes us the same person over time. This question is crucial to Jennifer. She doesn’t understand, she says, the relationship between the girl she was and the woman she is: how did she get there? Who was she, she asks. Why can’t she remember herself? In recovering memories she has long pushed to the bottom of her mind, Jennifer reconstitutes herself as a person. Fox also shows us how memories are not an unmediated form of access to the past; instead, we put them into comprehensible narratives to make sense of the world.

This is strikingly conveyed early on when Jennifer asks her mother for photographs of her thirteen-year-old self. She is stunned by how young she looked: the flashbacks we have hitherto witnessed were inaccurate, showing a young Jennifer closer to fifteen than thirteen. They are shown again with a younger actress, who plays the role through the rest of the film.

Incidentally, Sue Lyon was fifteen when she played the title role in Kubrick’s Lolita, and Dominique Swain sixteen in Adrian Lyne’s adaptation, pieces of casting which obscured the full impact of the abuse of a twelve-year-old. Less overtly, the common practice of casting older actors to play teenagers in film and TV provides us with a distorted understanding of teenage appearance and maturity. The casting in The Tale has the inverse effect: a teenage girl, we are shown, is still a child – not, as her abuser insists, a woman.

As Jennifer investigates her past, she turns her documentarian’s eye onto herself and onto her memories. As well as tracking down and talking to figures from her past in the present day – culminating in an emotionally-charged confrontation with her abuser – there are scenes in which she interviews the same figures as they appear in her memories. These include Bill, the running coach (a queasily charming Jason Ritter), her riding instructor Mrs G (an icy-cool Elizabeth Debicki), and, to devastating effect, her younger self (Isabelle Nélisse). By the end of the film, she goes beyond neutral interviews to actively challenge and debate herself, confronting the assumptions and beliefs she once held.

Fox’s authentic depiction of grooming and abuse could do important work in counteracting popular narratives of paedophiles as sinister men lurking in the shadows. Bill and Mrs G are attractive and charming; we immediately understand their appeal for a lonely young girl. We see how sexual abuse is prefaced by emotional manipulation: treating a child as if she is older and more mature than she is, playing on her need to feel special and loved, purporting to understand her as no one else does. “Why did you go back?” asks Jennifer’s mother at one point, desperately seeking to understand what happened – even asking, awfully, if Jennifer liked the abuse. “I got something else”, says Jennifer. Love. Attention. Heartbreakingly, we learn near the end of the film that the young Jennifer really believed in Bill’s love for her.

The Tale also avoids two tonal pitfalls: it is played neither for voyeuristic shock value nor sentimental earnestness. It certainly contains scenes that are shocking – sex scenes between a child and an adult, even knowing that they were shot using an adult body double, are sickening to watch. We are not encouraged to revel in their awfulness, however, or relish in the shivers of horror provoked by Bill’s behaviour. Likewise, the film’s seriousness does not equate to unrelenting misery; there are even a few moments of wry humour provided by Burstyn.

The film’s importance isn’t limited to its potential for portraying the reality of grooming and abuse. The very fact of an abuse survivor telling her own story from behind the camera is significant in a cinematic landscape inhabited by men like Roman Polanski and Woody Allen. Abusers and accused abusers are given free rein to tell cinematic stories: actors gush about working with Polanski, and Allen can turn out film after film about older men’s sleazy romances with young women while fans insist on separating the art from the artist. No such separation is possible with The Tale, and nor should it be. Fox’s film is an intervention whereby someone who was subject to abuse becomes the auteur, and the resulting film is inextricable from her life and experiences.

The Tale is both a significant film and a good one: interestingly told, impeccably performed and emotionally harrowing. Much has been made of its relevance to the current moment – #MeToo, Time’s Up, etc – but it should not be reduced to such a moment. The film’s very title suggests a timeless universality. While remaining the specific story of Fox’s childhood, it is a story of abuse which will be recognisable to all-too-many adults and children. In the film, Jennifer realises with horror that she was not unique: Bill abused others, perhaps many others. A similar realisation will haunt the viewer long after the credits roll.

4.5/5 stars

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