Sundance 2018: The Tale review


Documentary filmmaker Jennifer Fox unravels her own history of sexual abuse in The Tale, a sharp and harrowing account of stories and lies hidden away at the expense of innocence.

The truth of the story as far as Jennifer Fox (Laura Dern) knows, The Tale centres around the discovery of a school assignment recounting an experience had by the young Jenny with her riding teacher and her running coach, that she deemed “beautiful” at the time. It initiates an exploration of neglected memories and a distorted past life as Jenny, now in her 40s, grapples with her survival of sexual abuse at the hands of a middle-aged man. The Tale is distressing and compelling, a film for the #MeToo movement that reckons with personal relationships and inflicted trauma.

What is most interesting about The Tale is the way it interrogates the very faculty of memory, through tweaks and replays that alter the fabric of Jennifer’s story. The very first shift that occurs is maybe the most harrowing; that she had not accurately remembered something as seemingly determinable as how old she was when the abuse began. Our first introduction to the young Jenny is her at fifteen years old before the narrative retraces its steps and a younger girl appears, age thirteen. Isabelle Nélisse gives a poignant performance as this Jenny on the brink of what will come to define her life in ways she would refuse to examine for a long time.

These shifts occur throughout the film – Christmas becomes August, snow melts away, a fire goes out. This stylistic choice was, on the whole, subtly powerful, but a few methods of depicting the changes in memory were less enamouring and slightly clunky. Each little jump however, these fragments of her history, detail the ways trauma lingers and burrows into even the smallest of thoughts. At one point in the film, the older Jennifer quotes Joan Didion – “we tell ourselves stories in order to live” – and this seems to be the crux of the film and the way Fox explores her own experience.

Her own story is something that Jennifer must contend with against her younger self and this is something the film actualises in conversations between Dern and Nélisse, often heard in voice-overs or seen enacted in mirrors. It may be an obvious device but nonetheless it carries a very moving effect, the balance between Jenny as adult and child deeply exposed. Both actors delicately counter each other with considered and crafted performances. Jenny at thirteen begs with Jennifer in her 40s to stop picking away at their own life but she must persist.

It’s cathartic to witness her coming to terms with not just the fact of the abuse suffered but the highly personal sadness endured throughout her life. The Tale is a tragically important piece of work with a lingering sadness but also a profound sense of hope that we are now firmly embedded in times of interrogation and empowerment, a movement towards justice for the suffering and surviving.

Sundance London 2018 runs from 31 May-2 June at Picturehouse Central.

Caitlin Quinlan