Director Jennifer Fox’s autobiographical film The Tale—an account of her sexual abuse as a teen—inherently contains multitudes, at a time when the public is struggling to talk about the very delicate topic the movie concerns. Sexual assault has effectively metastasized into a hashtag, a movement often exploited as scandal. But the particular movement that is #MeToo has magnified the issue while opening the floodgates for critiques about a woman’s personal account of abuse. Then in comes a film that fits the same profile.
Laura Dern plays the real Jennifer Fox, or Jenny, a 48-year-old woman who rediscovers her creative writing from childhood and sets out on a procedural-like confrontation with the events she experienced at age 13—an association with an older man (her running coach) which at the time, an age of naïveté and curiosity, she categorized as consensual. Decades later, Jenny is left to process the messy memories, and that’s the domain in which The Tale predominantly operates.
As a play-by-play analysis of the experience and effect of abuse—an older woman recategorizing her sexual experience from youth as trauma, just as many women in the real world are lately—The Tale is truly singular. The creator is the narrator, subject, and object of her own story. More so than other autobiographical art, judging this work—which became the talk of Sundance this year (HBO Films later picked it up)—involves the crude act of critiquing it in tandem with absorbing the author’s past, and in a creative atmosphere set up to crown the best.
Jenny is unable to distinguish love and passion from perversion until she relives it as an adult, with concerned coaxing from her mother. The tension is in whether Jenny can recognize and define her abuse for herself. She’s not wrestling with the disbelief of others, but rather her own; she initially rejects the victim label because that’s not how she remembers it—she didn’t see it as trauma. But this is a portrait of a woman and a child in denial, so a movie that flutters between narrative and bio invites rough nuance in the thick of its layers.
It’s hard not to view Fox’s self-rendering of trauma as her form of therapy. Seemingly pre-seasoned for the moment, The Tale has been concurrently viewed as cultural artifact and cinema since its premiere, for its relevance to the news cycle and because so much of its dialogue parallels the now prevalent language of sexual violence: talk of agency, power dynamics, and renowned male abusers.
The audience’s reaction then is habitual—this is important, brave, impactful. The Tale will be considered powerful because it exists in a crucial time and space, and brave because it’s a woman releasing her personal story into the world for dissection. But is the movie good solely because of its impact and timeliness? For sure, it is not at all enjoyable. To me, it’s a compelling true story about abuse told through the medium of film, with imperfect construction. I hesitate to liken its structure to Lifetime—the expository dialogue and telegraphed actions—because of how much those movies are seen as lesser in value, and because a value judgment feels coarse in this case, and easily muddled by the import of the subject matter.
Defining The Tale in our “#MeToo” terms seems limiting, and turns the human character and her story into a convenient representation. That the movie was made before this moment underscores how deep and present the problem of sexual abuse has always been, in and around our vision. The difference here is that sexual assault experienced as an adult invites the type of sometimes evasive, gray-area discussions that are unnecessary in instances of child sexual abuse. Despite the film’s frequent use of the word “relationship” to describe the encounters, The Tale isn’t about the blurred lines of a self-aware teen in sexual collusion with an older man. It ultimately decides this was not that.
Young Jenny is presented both as an unreliable storyteller who considered herself an agent of her actions and as a victim of a predator, through shrewd visual devices to mimic the inaccuracy and dissolution of memory—adult Jenny is seen interrogating her younger self in direct-to-camera vignettes—and to emphasize how recollections create uncertainty and distrust, in ways meant to prompt deep thought about the nature of remembrance. The film depicts multiple scenes of rape between the 13-year-old Jenny and the abuser, along with depictions of actions associated with pedophilia: psychological manipulation, persuasion and preying on purity, all in a way that spells out the wrongfulness of the act even as the author questions it herself. (For graphic sexual scenes, the movie’s end credits note, an adult body double had to be used in place of Isabelle Nelisse, the actor who plays the 13-year-old Jenny. Nelisse was 11 years old when the film was shot.)
The Tale is as much about how we talk about and remember sexual violence as it is the experience. We see the confusion in the adult Jenny, and the exploitation of the younger Jenny is clear and visualized. In contrast, 2015's The Diary of a Teenage Girl, for instance, focused on a 15-year-old girl’s sexual relationship with an older man (her mom’s 35-year-old boyfriend), but that movie defined her journey as a declaration of sexual awakening. The story is presented solely through her eyes and it’s a difficult narrative, but abuse isn’t the driving force of the narrative; it’s about the birth of agency.
In this case, it matters how the filmmaker views the work. At a screening for The Tale at Sundance, following a standing ovation, Fox gave a Q&A about the production process. “I realized that I didn’t want to make a film just about child sexual abuse,” she told the audience. “I wanted to make a film about memory, and so I began to throw that aside and just create these units of memory.” All the scenes, she said, were “based primarily on real scenes” (perhaps she instinctively defined her life in terms of scenes), and the narrative is “as close to true as possible, in the fiction form,” she said.
After the Q&A, I walked up to Fox and asked her how she felt about The Tale being conjoined with #MeToo. “We’re at a moment where all of a sudden the wound has been opened, and I think it’s a really important moment,” she told me. “I hope with The Tale that we can get a more nuanced and complex dialogue as part of that movement. But I’m happy to be part of that movement.”
The Tale has landed at HBO, which Variety suggests is fitting: “It was a courageous choice to portray this kind of crime with such disquieting authenticity. Yet it lends the movie a squirmy and disturbing quality that people tend to shy away from in movie theaters (and may feel more comfortable confronting at home).” Certainly, people will need the time to process it.