The Tale is a brutal, uncomfortable and gripping examination of memory, truth, suppression and sexual abuse. It explores the ways in which we tinker with our own memories subconsciously to bring ourselves peace and to absolve a certain amount of our own suffering. The Tale is the hard-to-stomach sort of raw that splashes tension throughout your entire body and tingles your nerves—especially when you remember it is based on director Jennifer Fox’s own life. It is incredibly effective and demands to be seen and heard. There is at least some comfort in that the story is being told in her own words by the woman who has lived this very real experience.
The narrative style chosen is incredibly engaging, particularly the moments when older Jennifer (Laura Dern) breaks the 4th wall to sort of interview other characters and her younger self. It actually feels as though she is investigating and challenging her own memory, especially when she demands answers from her younger self. It shows us that perception is an extraordinary thing, especially when the perspective of the younger, manipulated Jennifer/Jenny (Isabelle Nélisse) is explored. She truly believes she is the author of her own life, that she has agency, and that Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki) and Bill (Jason Ritter) are honest people who have her best interests at heart and not their own. She convinces herself so vehemently that she is not a victim, and we see older Jennifer continue to struggle with this at the beginning of the film. Jennifer’s mother, Nettie (Ellen Burstyn), tells Jennifer she was abused, and Jennifer initially denies it desperately.
The most striking and heart-breaking moment in the film is within the first few minutes when the actress of young Jenny switches from a 15-year-old (what older Jennifer had been picturing herself as) to a sweet 13-year-old (her true age). It is deeply unsettling and had my breath caught in my throat. It is a coping mechanism Jennifer unknowingly used to justify—or at least make acceptable to her—her abuse at the hands of her track coach and riding trainer. This awful moment also displays the utter dishonesty of memory. For years Jennifer had been remembering this deeply traumatizing time in her life differently from the way it had actually occurred, and her moment of realization is gut-wrenching. She stares down at the photograph of herself aged 13, baby-faced, naïve and delicate—it is horrifying.
“I was so little,” she says quietly.
Obviously, I am not a psychologist whatsoever; however, attempting to understand the way memory works in the face of trauma is endlessly fascinating. There are two ways to explore the gaps in Jennifer’s memory, both in conjunction with each other. NPR did a piece on trauma and memory during the Kavanaugh hearings, which discusses exactly how people remember extremely traumatic events, and which parts people tend to forget. The central details of any certain trauma get burned into that person’s memory. However, because they are hyper-focused on the most central features of their experience, they forget peripheral details. This, at least in some way, helps us to understand why Jennifer’s memory is so fragmented.
The other reason for Jennifer’s twisted memory is simply the suppression of childhood trauma by the brain, done subconsciously to protect her from her own memories. There are clear-cut areas in Jennifer’s memory where suppression occurred. Stories encapsulate who we are. As Jennifer says, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” They run through our veins as thick as blood: essential. But what happens when the stories you thought you knew as true were lies, or at least partially founded on lies. When the people you admired and thought you loved abused and manipulated you. When you realize your innocence and your girlhood were stolen away from you by a man who knew exactly what he was doing? How do you even reconcile that?
Fox directs her protagonists extraordinarily well. Nélisse plays Jenny as empowered by her secrets, while Dern is unraveled by them. Dern gives an exceptional performance. She seems to instinctively know how to portray Jennifer’s careful intellect and reserved emotions, and the scenes in which Dern is vulnerable are all the more poignant for it. Thirteen-year-old Jenny truly thinks she is loved, feels as though her secrets place her on almost equal ground as the adults she shares them with. But her body knows what her mind can’t understand. She throws up every time she is raped by Bill—as much as she may think it is a loving relationship—and she becomes physically ill enough that she is forced to stay in bed rather than go on a weekend vacation with Bill and Mrs. G, then ending her relationship with them.
Using the word abuse feels contradictory to Jennifer’s conception of her experience, despite our collective legal and personal definitions of her experience as being rape. She never exactly lets her abusers (and enablers) off the hook, she simply craves her own agency. She renounces being labeled a victim, even if she knows she was one and continues to be. She wants to reclaim and understand her experiences as her own. She tells her story, tells The Tale in an attempt to reclaim that agency which she so desires.
Despite some of its flaws—both technically and visually—The Tale is a devastatingly good film. It physically made me anxious: my chest tightened and breathing sped up at exactly the correct moments. All of the horseback riding scenes overflowed with a strange nervousness and disquiet, and every interaction with Mrs. G or Bill felt like something was being hidden from me, something they knew. Its ability to make me feel so deeply invested and connected so quickly is impressive. My emotions felt like they were inexplicably tied to the film. It achieves what it does emotionally because it is so honest and true to Fox’s real-life experience.
There are a few moments I wish had been more detailed and more brought to life. Some of the characters have no real structure or motivation, despite being mentioned and referred to as important, such as Jenny’s father or Iris, who had very little development. However, I think because it is a projection of Jennifer’s memory, the gaps we see reflect those gaps in her memory, so I am not entirely disenchanted by that. The editing is certainly a standout. Each shot is pieced together so gracefully and so accurately to the way memory works that it actually feels as though one is sifting through Jennifer’s mind, searching for answers. It is so real, yet never fully trustworthy.
I am very much struck by this film. Its exploration of memory is inconceivably real and painful that I suddenly felt the urge to searchingly comb back through all of my past experiences. Fox has a harrowing story to tell, but it needs telling; it beckons us to listen. The Tale is certainly an underrated film of 2018 so far, and its lessons of suppression, trauma and the impact of sexual abuse should absolutely not be ignored. The Tale begs us: pay attention.
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Jenna Kalishman is a freelance writer and cinephile based in Colorado who often focuses on female and queer perspectives as well as female-led projects. She spends much of her free time listening to Stevie Nicks and re-watching Carol. You can find her on twitter @jenkalish.