The Tale Is a Powerful, Messy Story About Abuse

At this year’s Sundance, Jennifer Fox’s film stood out for its harrowing exploration of the director’s own experience as a teenage girl.

Laura Dern and Isabelle Nélisse in 'The Tale'
Laura Dern and Isabelle Nélisse in The Tale (The Sundance Institute)

“We are wondering: What’s the post-Harvey era going to look like?” said the Washington Post journalist Sarah Ellison on a panel at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which ended earlier this week. The festival itself, for one, looked different. In the 2017 edition, amid throngs of feminists clad in pink pussy hats, Harvey Weinstein proudly participated in the inaugural Women’s March in Park City. This year, following a wave of sexual-assault allegations by women in the industry, the former mega-producer was nowhere to be found. The spotlight was instead focused on 45 female directors with daring films that set the tone for the festival and, perhaps, for the future of Hollywood.

As festival-goers assembled for this year’s Women’s March (renamed the “Respect Rally”), one of the most powerful statements about the issues kicked up by the #MeToo movement was being delivered in a darkened theater nearby. There, viewers had gathered for the premiere of Jennifer Fox’s The Tale, an unflinching dramatized account of statutory rape based on the director’s own experiences: As a 13-year-old girl, she had a sexual relationship with her 40-year-old track coach.

Last month, my colleague Conor Friedersdorf argued that although reporting on the #MeToo movement is necessary to expose incidences of sexual abuse—especially those with ramifications in the public sector—fiction can play an edifying role in the private realm, probing the nuances and gray areas inherent in the conversation about consent and power dynamics. “Cat Person,” the viral New Yorker short story, is an example of how literature can leverage moral ambiguity to spark discussion. The Tale is cinema’s vital contribution.

In Fox’s harrowing cinematic memoir, Laura Dern plays the adult version of Fox, a documentarian in her 50s who, upon returning from filming abroad, receives a voicemail from her mother (Ellen Burstyn). The older woman has discovered a troubling “story” that 13-year-old Jennifer wrote for a middle-school assignment, in which the girl, then known as Jenny, describes in rapturous prose how she was inducted into the realm of romantic love by two adults. To hear Jenny tell it, she fell into the warm embrace of a ménage à trois. Her mother sees it differently.

Jennifer is quick to shrug off any concern. She acknowledges having had a much-older “boyfriend” to whom she lost her virginity but maintains that their relationship, if unconventional, was consensual. A halcyon flashback offers her memory of the affair’s origins: A tall, sprightly teenage Jenny (Jessica Sarah Flaum) arrives at her horse trainer, Mrs. G’s (Elizabeth Debicki), house in the country, where she’ll spend the summer. Jenny is struck by Mrs. G’s beauty and immediately takes an interest in her handsome boyfriend, Bill (Jason Ritter), who will also be her running coach for the upcoming months. She flashes him a smile.

But then, the next day, at her childhood home, Jennifer’s mother shows her adult daughter a photograph taken that summer. In it, Jennifer isn’t the self-assured young woman she remembers herself to be; she’s a prepubescent girl who hasn’t yet lost her baby fat. In a gutting directorial move, Fox “recasts” the younger version of herself with a shy, cherubic 13-year-old (Isabelle Nélisse). The same memories replay, but with a much darker valence: A young, awkward girl arrives at summer camp. She looks vulnerable. She is noticed, almost imperceptibly, by a 40-year-old man.

It’s in this upending manner that Fox invites the audience to participate in excavating her past. The project is messy and riveting. Memories, after all, are living reconstructions, and the creative choices Fox makes to illustrate this fallibility are profound. Adult Jennifer interacts with her recollections, which manifest onscreen as shape-shifting flashbacks, replayed and edited in order to incorporate revelations, fill lacunas, reconcile contradicting accounts, and introduce new characters she had tried to bury. Sometimes, Jennifer gently presses her younger self (“Did I say yes?”); other times, she’s more confrontational, like when she’s interrogating her abusers (“How could you say that?”) or admonishing her 13-year-old self (“You were manipulated!”). In other critical moments, the defiant young Jenny breaks the fourth wall and addresses the camera head-on, refusing to play the part of a victim.

Slowly but surely, Jennifer comes to see how the rose-colored stories she told herself about the relationship served as a fortifying bulwark against the trauma of abuse. “Your body remembers everything,” Mrs. G tells her in a flashback as young Jenny struggles to find her form in the corral. It’s a haunting augury, especially because it comes from a woman who will ultimately be complicit in what happens to Jenny.

The scenes showing Jenny’s abuse are the film’s most challenging moments, depicted in straightforward, excruciating detail. Ritter, excellent in an unforgiving role, imbues Bill with a boyish, nice-guy charm. Little by little, he mechanically lowers Jenny’s defenses, preying on her need for self-actualization and agency. He showers her with the affection she doesn’t receive at home. He makes her feel understood. He tells her that their relationship is “too pure for regular society to understand.” He has sex with her. (Later, Jennifer will name it rape.) When it’s over, Jenny runs to the bathroom to throw up. But she will tell no one. This is her secret—at 13, it is the only thing she truly owns.

The Tale creates a living dialogue of the #MeToo movement by exposing its entrails. In this film, as in the societal conversation, the contours of abuse are not black and white. Before they engage in predatory behavior, abusers can be mentors to their victims. Victims, in turn, can seem to aid in their own abuse—and even conflate it with desire. An encounter that felt consensual at the time can, when later viewed through the lens of objective power dynamics, be considered a violation. As Fox told the Los Angeles Times: “As a child, I loved these people … I was trading my sexuality for love. What I understood as an adult in this investigation is that the trade was an unfair one.”

* * *

A 13-year-old girl sits in the dark next to an older man. “I want to save you from all those stupid young boys out there,” he says. “Would you do something for me?” He tells her to take her shirt off.

This is a scene from The Tale. It is also uncannily similar to a scene from another film that played at Sundance this year: Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade. In both cases, the man frames his behavior as solicitous, and the young girl feels she owes herself to him, and behaves accordingly. These dynamics are not easily parsed as they occur in life. Portraying them on screen is an important step in reinforcing them as common experiences.

After the premiere of The Tale, Fox spoke about her motivation for making the film. “I was talking to women around the world, and I started to hear my story,” she said. “Anecdotally, one in two women had a story like this … This event that I’d always called a relationship wasn’t personal. It wasn’t individual. It was actually universal. It was then I thought, ‘It’s time to make this film—it’s time to tell this story.’”