If anyone is in the position to understand the vagaries of memory, it has to be documentary filmmakers. Their job requires them to sift through other people’s recollections and build stories out of them; to determine where self-delusion or forgetfulness or exaggeration play a role.
In The Tale, the documentarian becomes her own subject, delving into her fragmented childhood memories with the research skills someone in her profession has honed. Jennifer Fox’s autobiographical feature is new territory for her; her previous work has all been documentary. Jennifer is played by Laura Dern as an accomplished New York City filmmaker who finds herself falling down a wormhole of investigation about a disturbing childhood relationship she remembers as being innocent. When Jennifer’s mother (a terse Ellen Burstyn) discovers an English paper from her daughter’s youth, she is forced to reconsider the summer she spent at an equestrian camp when she was thirteen years old.
What follows is a profound and intelligently-crafted drama about reckoning with the experience of childhood sexual abuse, with two interlocking narratives comprising the film. As the adult Jennifer begins to examine her own past, the precocious tween Jenny (Isabelle Nelisse) falls deeper into a nauseating cycle of manipulation and abuse. The flashbacks are rendered with an eye for sunny early 1970s detail that’s clearly rotten in the middle. Jenny’s alienation from her large, chaotic family and admiration for a prim, elegant riding coach (Elizabeth Debicki) makes her a prime candidate for being taken advantage of.
But Fox brilliantly remixes, chops, and changes her flashback sequences as Dern realizes something new, or remembers another person was in the room, or has her memory jogged by someone else’s account of events. The result is as much a process of unlearning what Jennifer thinks she knows as it is one of finding the truth. The resulting style is self-reflexive and thoughtful, allowing communication between child and adult selves—and for Dern’s character to conduct hypothetical interviews circa 1973.
Fox doesn’t—seemingly can’t—shy away from the stomach-churning details of the scenes which follow, ones where the chillingly ordinary Bill (Jason Ritter), a running coach, works methodically at initiating Jenny into a sexual relationship. As harrowing as it is to watch, seeing a woman come to terms with the reality of her abuse after decades of burying it is deeply powerful. Jennifer refuses to accept victimhood until she can grasp it on her own terms, and her eventual confrontation of her abuser is cathartic. The difficulty of unwrapping the layers of shame and self-denial in stories of abuse—and of learning how to heal—is implicit in the very form of The Tale. This makes it a cinematic experience both moving and timely.