Director: Jennifer Fox
Starring: Laura Dern, Isabelle Nélisse, Ellen Burstyn, Jason Ritter, Elizabeth Debicki
Writer: Jennifer Fox
Review by Michael Walls-Kelly
I only remember them. Why can’t I remember myself?
Jennifer Fox’s The Tale, airing this Saturday at 10 PM on HBO, is a deeply personal film about sexual abuse. The abuse itself and how it impacted the lives of those involved is a main focus of the film, but interestingly the subjective nature of memory and personal truth is front-and-centre as well.
The movie is based on Fox’s life with enough personal and biographical details changed to obscure certain identities. The story starts when Jenny (Laura Dern) receives a package from her mother (Ellen Burstyn) containing a story she found that Jenny wrote for school when she was 13. The story — which gets a “based on” credit at the end of the film — is called “The Tale” and recounts a deeply personal connection a young Jenny had with Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki) and Bill (Jason Ritter), her riding instructor and running coach respectively. Jenny starts remembering more about their relationship and starts talking to the people in her life at the time. She uncovers long-forgotten memories and confronting certain truths for the very first time.
Fox, traditionally a documentary filmmaker, is very confident in contorting the form of the film itself. The present-day scenes are filmed traditionally, but the memories and flashbacks have a subtle difference. Colours seem a little more vibrant as if it were an older film stock. Fox also blurs the past and the present, letting young Jenny (Isabelle Nélisse) and older Jenny appear in scenes together and interact. Being a documentarian, Fox also has the characters addressing the camera as Jenny asks “them” questions, interrogating her own mind and memories to get to the truth behind their actions.
The most interesting thing she does, and the thing that hooked me into The Tale early on, was visualize how messy our perceptions and memories can be. When Jenny reads the beginning of her story she starts to remember it. She pictures herself as a young woman riding a horse and interacting with Bill and Mrs. G. It isn’t until she sees a picture of herself at the time that she realizes she was envisioning a 15-year-old version of herself, not a 13-year-old version. It’s then that Nélisse appears in the memories, a small, quiet child instead of the smiling, confident teen Jenny envisioned.
A woman in the film class Jenny is teaching puts this into words, saying “I was younger than I thought of myself to be,” which is so often the case, isn’t it? The movie continues to play around with the subjective and malleable nature of memory — Jenny remembers something happening on Christmas. Her mother disagrees. The snow disappearing from Jenny’s flashback — but the actor change-up for young Jenny was as strong a thesis any movie could present.
Laura Dern is fantastic, obviously. She’s one of my favourite actors ever. I’ve been overjoyed by the amount of work she’s been getting lately. She’s perfectly cast as Jenny, easily navigating the complicated emotions inherent in a story like this. Dern has one of the most expressive faces in Hollywood (go back and watch Jurassic Park by just focusing on Dern and thank me later) so a close-up of her silent face is enough to anchor any scene. She also has fantastic chemistry with Ellen Burstyn. It’s such an honest depiction of a complicated relationship between a parent and a child. A depiction without any judgment but loaded down with unspoken history.
Elizabeth Debicki and Jason Ritter have difficult jobs in this film. They both have to be charming and engaging while grooming a child. Ritter, in particular, has some hard-to-watch scenes that he pulls off with gut-wrenching effectiveness. I’ve considered Debicki underrated for a while now. I really hope her performance here gets some recognition. Mrs. G is a complicated character that Debicki — and Frances Conroy as the older Mrs. G — is able to show off those different facets while leaving us wanting more.
It’s unfortunate that The Tale isn’t getting a wide theatrical release, but I’m ultimately glad that HBO picked it up. It’s a powerful, cathartic film that deserves to be seen. I hope Jennifer Fox continues to explore other stories in more feature films.
Verdict: Watch this. The Tale is an intense and deeply personal story that’s told so well and so honestly — or, as honestly as anyone can retell any story — that it’s a must-watch. I hope the fact that it’s premiering on HBO won’t lessen its chances of awards consideration. Laura Dern and Jennifer Fox at the very least deserve whatever they can get for the raw emotion they put up on the screen. The Tale isn’t an easy watch, but it’s a relevant and engrossing story about a woman reckoning with her past and her emotions. After watching it, I had to sit quietly for a few minutes and sit with my own thoughts and emotions. I’d be surprised if that reaction isn’t universal.