Sundance Film Festival
When you see THE TALE, the credits are held until the end of the film. The writing credits in particular are interesting. The screenplay is credited to Jennifer Fox, who also directed the film, and then the next title card says “Based on the story ‘The Tale’ by Jenny Fox, age 13.” That’s very important, because one of the primary themes of The Tale is the way memory works and the distance between who we are now when we think back on things, and who we were when those things happened. The story that 13-year-old girl wrote is not the same thing as the film the adult woman made, and the reason for that is the reason you should see The Tale.
I’ll start by getting my criticisms out of the way. This movie has some first-time filmmaker problems, and while this is not her first film overall, Fox’s other work has been in documentary. Some of her staging is stiff, and there’s a little bit of a lumbering quality to the actual storytelling. She’s not great with all of her actors. Scenes have a tendency to just stop and start without much elegance. But having said that, The Tale is still essential viewing, and the things it does right are emotionally powerful and deeply disturbing. It is a film that has lingered with me since I saw it two days ago, and if anything, it’s growing the more I think about it.
As the film opens, Jennifer (Laura Dern) is working on her latest documentary and teaching her university class. She’s got a life she likes, a structure she likes. Her boyfriend Martin (Common) is in and out of town because of his work, which keeps her from having to contend with anything too serious or consuming. Her mother Nettie (Ellen Burstyn) calls, upset because she’s just discovered an old story written by Jenny when she was young, and the contents of the story have her convinced that something terrible happened to Jenny at that age.
It’s a simple setup, and as soon as Jennifer starts thinking about the story, Fox starts playing with memory as one of the key themes of her film. Her story is about two adults she knew at a key point in her life and how they taught her about love. One of them, Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki) was a horse riding coach who ran a camp where Jenny went for the summer. The other was Bill (Jason Ritter, who displays enormous courage with his work here), a running coach who worked with the riding students as well. The first time Jennifer thinks back on that summer, we see the two of them and we see Jenny, played by Jessica Sarah Flaum. She’s really young, and she talks about how these two adults were in love, and they loved her as well, and that love was important to her. Very quickly, though, her mother corrects Jennifer’s memory of the events by showing her a picture of Mrs. G, Bill, and a little girl who is much younger than the girl in the memory. Isabelle Nélisse is the young actor who plays Jenny from that point on, and we see those same scenes, but with a younger girl, and in that one move, Fox underlines that we are unreliable witnesses to our own lives, and that we rewrite our stories when it suits us.
Jennifer really doesn’t remember how much of Jenny’s story is true… not at first. But the documentarian starts to recognize a narrative, and she starts to investigate as she would if it were someone other than her who had this experience. Little by little, she starts to realize that what she defined as an important set of relationships that helped usher her into adulthood were something far more damaging, and her feelings about that damage are so complicated that I suspect some viewers will reject the movie rather than attempt to empathize with it. I believe, based on what we see in this film, that Jenny was savagely victimized by this pair of adults. I believe, based on what we see in this film, that Mrs. G was complicit in the abuse that Bill committed on a little girl, and that Mrs. G’s pathology was complicated and born in damage that she experienced. I believe, based on what we see in this film, that Bill was a monster, and that he is most likely a victimizer on the scale of Larry Nassar, and that like Larry Nassar, he worked in a field that put him in contact with plenty of potential victims and gave him ample opportunity to indulge. I also believe that Jenny would be furious at the use of the word “victim” in any relation to her, and that Jennifer still has complicated feelings about her experiences.
Part of what is happening in our culture right now is an inevitable growing pain, and the reason it is so upsetting is because it is necessary if we’re ever going to be anything other than what we are right now. For that to happen, we are going to have to get better at talking about things like coercive sex and consent and pedophilia. They are emotionally charged topics, for obvious reasons, and it can be hard to have those conversations because they are disturbing or because they run so counter to our sense of decency. As a parent, the thought of another adult sexually violating one of my kids makes me so angry, so immediately ready to resort of violence, that it would be impossible for me to discuss it dispassionately. Ellen Burstyn is very good as Nettie, and it’s wrenching to watch her struggle to find some way to help her adult daughter deal with something that happened to her as a child, something Nettie didn’t prevent and, even worse, never knew about. Part of why she pushes Jennifer to piece together the truth about what happened is because Nettie needs to understand just how seriously she failed her daughter. That’s horrifying. It’s one of the things that keeps parents awake at night, a fear of missing something like that, or being powerless.
The least successful stuff in the film has to do with Jennifer’s relationship to Martin, and I think what rubs me wrong about it is how tricky the material is, and how crucial it is to get it right. Being the partner of someone who was abused or assaulted requires patience and boundless empathy, and that’s assuming you even know what happened. You may never get the truth from them, and you’re not owed it, either. All you can do is try to understand that they have experienced something you haven’t, and they are going to process it. How they process it is not something you can control. They may need to be treated very delicately. They may require total normalcy from you. They may tell you everything. They may tell you nothing. There’s an entire film in just the nuance of that relationship, but that is just not the film Fox is making here. There’s a little bit of conflict, but for the most part, Martin’s pushed off-stage as quickly as possible, then shows up at the very end, everything clearly perfect between them again. I get it. Fox’s film is about her journey, not Martin’s. Right now, though, as the #TimesUp movement gains steam, it’s important for men to have models to observe for how to behave when we find ourselves in a situation like this. If #MeToo has told us anything, it has told us that there are so many women who have never spoken about their stories in public, and there are plenty of women who have never spoken about their stories in private, either. We have to know how to build those bridges of communication, and a hard cut in a movie that fixes everything right away doesn’t really help with that.
What The Tale does so well, though, is everything regarding Jennifer’s journey to reconciling who she is as an adult with what she thought happened to her as a child, and what actually happened. There is some harrowing material here. Bill is a predator, and he spends a chunk of the film grooming Jenny. That’s hard to watch. What is even more upsetting is what happens once things cross into the physical with them. Those scenes were all shot very carefully so as not to do any harm to the young actor involved, and it required a great deal of invention from Fox as a director and a great deal of frank honesty from Jason Ritter. I’m not sure there are many actors who could survive playing this part. I am haunted by some of what he says and does in the film, and no matter how much I know that it’s a part he’s playing and this is the fictionalized version of these events, there is a stark, ugly frankness to the memories that will stick with me anyway, and that will stick to him when I think of him. That innate decency of his is part of why the film works. You can see exactly how he does what he does, how he wins over young Jenny’s trust, how he groomed and shaped her with his words and the way he constantly made it sound like the whole square world was too uncool to understand love the way Bill does.
Little by little, Jennifer confronts the truth about that summer and the fall that followed, and by the end of the film, there is no big resolution, no explosive courtroom drama finale. Instead, there is simply a step towards some sort of healing. John Heard shows up as an older Bill, and it was emotionally rough to see him playing this kind of character the last time I’ll ever seen him in a new film. He’s good though, and he gives Laura Dern the target to unload on in the home stretch. Dern is so good here that it is almost invisible. She’s not playing to the cheap seats. She doesn’t try to go over the top. This is big harrowing material, and she admirably scales her visible responses way back. There’s power in seeing what finally breaks this woman, who has spent her whole adult life outrunning these memories. Fox allows young Jenny and grown-up Jennifer to converse across time, and in doing so, she gets to some of the rawest, ugliest moments in the movie. I think this is a brave film precisely because it’s not about someone doing every single thing right. It’s not about someone who perfectly handles something. It’s messy. It’s frustrating.
And, yeah, when it’s very good, it’s great. And important. And insightful. And if you have to deal with some degree of messy to get to great and important and insightful, then so be it. The Tale is going to punch a hole in viewers who are ready to really listen to what it has to say.
Running time: 114 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic