When Jennifer Fox's semi-autobiographical film The Tale premiered at Sundance back in January, it was immediately hailed as the first "#MeToo movie," a personal work about childhood sexual assault that's more memoir than fiction. Four months later, on the eve of the film's HBO release, that urgency still comes through, particularly as we've spent that time living through a collective remembrance of sorts, a reassessment of what we thought to be true, and the ugly machinations really at work behind the scenes.
Laura Dern plays Jennifer, a successful documentary filmmaker and professor who starts questioning her understanding of certain childhood relationships after her mother (Ellen Burstyn) discovers a story she wrote for English class when she was 13. Frantic voicemails lead to a conversation in which we find out the tale in question, written in the first person, focuses on Jennifer's two adult mentors — riding instructor Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki) and running coach Bill (Jason Ritter) — who, in what she maintains is a purely fictional take, involved her as a third party in their open relationship.
At first, Jennifer dismisses her mother's concerns. As she remembers it, this was a story she wrote about her first boyfriend, who just happened to be "much older" than she was, and the woman who enabled their love to flourish. She says as much to her current partner (Common), who is appalled that she can't seem to see what he does: inappropriate and downright illegal contact between an adult male abuser and a helpless minor. It's that idea of helplessness, that she wouldn't have been in control of her actions or decisions, that Jennifer vehemently rejects. Still, something does start to shift as long-buried memories resurface, and so begins an exploration of the lies we tell ourselves to cope with unbearable realities.
The film's narrative toggles between the two perspectives living within Jennifer: her adult self striving to understand what her 13-year-old counterpart couldn't, and the childhood self (played by Canadian newcomer Isabelle Nélisse) who may have originally understood more than she let on, but surrendered to a more palatable narrative in order to survive.
A documentarian, Fox delved into her own past for her scripted debut. This gives the film some much-needed legitimacy; fictional narratives (in film, TV and fiction) about sexual assault are often too heavily picked apart and scrutinized. But no skeptic can claim heavy-handedness here — it's the truth, or at least Fox's truth. It also gives us a work that's incredibly brave. Fox uses her own name in the script, and although she has refused to name her own abuser, the film feels like she's taking us on a journey of self-exploration without a foregone conclusion, which makes the end result both satisfying and not satisfying, much like real life.
And in light of the current cultural climate, the film's power lies in showing how murky trauma can be for the people who live through it, but also how obvious it appears in hindsight. Fox also addresses the so-often used excuse of "it was a different time," with a tongue-in-cheek reference to free love ("it was the '70s") that is as bogus here as it was when Harvey Weinstein employed it as a defense back in October.
The timing of The Tale is fortuitous, but I fear that the hype associated with the #MeToo label might somehow obscure what is ultimately a slow, delicately put together film. In fact, it tries so hard not to sensationalize a deeply-rooted trauma that it drags along a little too much. That's not to say that The Tale pulls punches in its treatment of childhood sexual abuse. Several people walked out of the Sundance screening, faced with the uncomfortable sight of then-11-year-old Nélisse intimately interacting with a 34-year-old Ritter. And though the scenes of them in bed were shot using a body double (Fox used non-sexual cues to direct Nélisse for reaction shots), the onscreen result is no less troubling to watch. (Although, the standing ovation it reportedly received at Sundance also indicates its importance despite — or perhaps because of — it being difficult to grapple with.)
Nélisse's youth reinforces just how underdeveloped and, well, young, girls are at 13, an aspect that's often overlooked in film and television, partly because those parts are usually played by older actresses. (The film doubles down on this by having Dern remember herself looking much older at 13, until her mother shows her a picture, which she, like us, finds shocking.) Not to mention that Nélisse is a singularly gifted young actress, who conveys that very distinct early tweenagehood feeling of wanting to be treated like an adult, but terrified that someone might actually listen and act on it.
Dern plays off of that burgeoning self-assuredness, fully believable as the determined, accomplished woman that young girl has become, but still conserving the vulnerability of someone who doesn't want to believe they've been hurt. Ritter is another example of great casting, exuding an eery trustworthiness that's the result of a career in shows like Parenthood, Girls, and Kevin (Probably) Saves the World. We've been told he's the nice guy, the one you want walking you home at night, which makes this betrayal a challenging one to see coming. But the real breakout is Debicki, who tackles a difficult role with a strange combination of verve and poise, and is just as compelling to watch for the audience as she appears to young Jennifer, which only reinforces her dangerous allure.
HBO's decision to buy the distribution rights to the buzzy film at Sundance means it will get wider play than one would expect from such difficult and dark material. But be warned that this isn't a casual Saturday night watch, despite its May 26 premiere date. It's a deeply uncomfortable journey that will have you questioning the narrative of "victim" that we so often impose on those who have survived abuse. And at a time when those experiences — in all their complex nuances and variations — are finally starting to get the attention and support they deserve, that's more important than ever.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).