In Jennifer Fox's devastating directorial venture The Tale, the acclaimed filmmaker interrogates the relationship between memory, trauma and the life-long psychological consequences that victims of sexual abuse battle. Based on her own experience with abuse as a child, Fox translates a lifetime of negotiating one's own victimhood into a sensitive film that bravely examines the stories we choose to tell ourselves in order to lead uncomplicated lives. The intersecting timelines within the film explore how unreliable memory can be and how distinctly it is shaped by perception.
Laura Dern plays Jennifer Fox, a seemingly well-adjusted 40-something documentary filmmaker who's content with the life she's built for herself. A call from her distraught mother after she discovers a shocking essay Fox wrote when she was only 13 sends Fox into a spiral as she revisits her past to piece together what happened to her over the course of one summer. The Tale is a unique trauma narrative that doesn't place revenge or retribution at its centre, not at the beginning at least. It is solely focused on the protagonist's internal conflict as she questions a 'consensual relationship' she thought she had when she was 13 with a 30-year-old man. Fox is defensive and evasive when her mother first confronts her about the essay she wrote. Her mother was unaware that her daughter was sexually involved with a man so much older than her. Fox believes that their relationship was like any other, based on mutual love and respect: she's spent her whole life viewing it only through that lens. Her initial denial of the nature of her relationship turns to confusion, setting her off on a path of self-discovery that is fraught with shattering realisations.
As we shift from Fox at 40 to Fox at 13, we are introduced to the summer that changed her life forever. She was a timid 13-year-old, one of five children in a household that always seemed overflowing with chaos, forcing her to retreat to the silence of a horse-training camp for her summer holidays. Young, impressionable, craving attention and validation, Fox is instantly enamoured of the mysterious Mrs. G (played by a radiant Elizabeth Debicki) who's in charge of training a small group of girls at the camp. Bill (Jason Ritter), the professional coach, and Mrs. G take a special interest in Fox, building her trust, careful to always make her feel like she was exceptionally mature for her age.
The process of grooming Fox and manipulating her into taking decisions she was clearly too young to make is an insightful examination of the insidious ways in which sexual abuse takes form. These scenes in particular explore the nuances of power and consent, and how simply agreeing to something is not the same as understanding what you're getting yourself into, especially when you're as young as 13. Buried memories resurface as Fox begins to make sense of her disjointed past. She's confronted with her own victimhood, a tag she's resisted for years, but has to finally come to terms with. She must confront the abuse she was subjected to.
The Tale is a riveting journey of self-discovery anchored by spectacular performances and a gripping narrative. It's an important, timely film that turns the lens inward, exploring the uncomfortable confrontations we often have to have with ourselves to understand how the past shapes us into the people that we become.