"Can you just let me sit with my memories?"
There’s a lot of bravery in portraying certain subjects on screen. You have to risk not only putting your own creative vision out there, but under certain scrutiny it needs to be seen as servicing real people who have been affected by the very harsh reality of what your story is conveying. In the case of ‘The Tale’ that story is an autobiographical one, so to say there’s a level of intimacy in this highly troubling subject is an understatement. If anything that intimacy only serves to make the movie more authentic, as well as all the more disturbing.
Jennifer Fox lives comfortably as a documentary filmmaker and university professor. But when her mother discovers a story titled "The Tale" that Jennifer wrote when she was 13, detailing a special relationship Jennifer had with two adult coaches, Jennifer returns to the Carolina horse farm where the events transpired to try to reconcile her version of events with the truth and come to terms with how it has impacted her life and behaviour.
It is difficult to discuss precisely what makes ‘The Tale’ so impactful, and so relevant, without spoiling some of the film’s eventual revelations. But if you can derive anything from the film’s premise alone I think a viewer can gather some idea of where the narrative is heading. Also it’s not so much in the broader strokes which the film finds its effectiveness but in precisely how the protagonist comes to the realisation of what happened to her. Here Jennifer Fox brings us a film that is harrowing and difficult, but is also deeply important.
Maybe I’m subconsciously aware of this due to the autobiographical nature of the movie, but struck me about the way in which the story was told was the sheer intimacy of the portrait. As an audience we feel completely in tune with what Jennifer is experiencing as she uncovers each new memory. They don’t come in waves of revelation but slowly and surely, piece by piece. We understand the various methods in which she lied to herself, or even if it’s fair to say she lied but rather simply couldn’t comprehend what had happened to her.
It’s on that front that the structure and editing of ‘The Tale’ really stand out as exceptional. Through some sections of the film it morphs into a pure stream of consciousness as new shreds of information come to form a new perspective of a memory we previously thought to know. The editing is masterful in how it manipulates the audience in such a way that their viewpoint of Jennifer’s memories is alters just as her outlook is. The film really captures what it feels like to truly remember something, to have memories and see new details within them.
If anything the film is less about the trauma itself and more concerned with how Jennifer reconciles the abuse she suffered. She lashes out when someone suggests she might be a victim because she hates to think of herself as weak (by her own definition of “weak”) in any sense. The film details her thought process as a child that led her to deny the truth for so many years. It provides a motive for why she manipulated her own life story to be a more comfortable narrative. She alters certain details and blocks others, from convincing herself that she was slightly older in her memory than in reality, to how she failed to notice the fact that she was exhibiting the very symptoms she herself had noticed in other victims she interviewed.
All of this emotional complexity is brought to the forefront by a fantastic performance from Laura Dern. She conveys such an acute sense of Jennifer being a woman gradually opening a well of repressed emotions. As the film goes on Dern’s performance allows these emotions to seep through one crack at a time. She tries to remain courteous, professional and “strong” (again by her own definition) through this ordeal, but cracks gradually appear in her armour. When these emotions come flooding out near the end of the movie it is as cathartic as it is heart breaking.
A good portion of the movie is also occupied by Isabelle Nelisse as the younger version of Jennifer. The young actress brilliantly shows the progression of the character as she is drawn into what will become something more horrific than many viewers can imagine. The apprehension and curiosity she displays is highly evocative, as is her eventual withdrawal and denial. I empathised so deeply with her motives to repress what really happened to her due to a number of complex and conflicting emotions that she conveys perfectly.
I spent the first half of ‘The Tale’ under the impression that its direction was lacking a certain dynamic. But when taken as a whole I soon realised how it was part of an inspired progression through visuals. Jennifer’s current life is initially flat and stable, while her memories are mostly shot using a soft focus and simplistic staging. But as the memories take shape the depth of field increases as each repressed recollection is truly fleshed out. Then the camera takes a handheld and more movement oriented approach when it comes to displaying her modern life, as these emotions gradually unbalance the stability she thought she possessed.
As I said at the start of this review, there is bravery in telling a story of this nature. But I can’t even begin to imagine the courage needed to tell one that is this closely related to the artist that is telling it. There are disturbing moment throughout ‘The Tale’ as the film is unflinching and unapologetic in its depiction of the abuse Jennifer underwent. It validates why victims of this kind of abuse feel the need to block their trauma, both consciously and subconsciously.
‘The Tale’ is an intimate story of repression and revelations, told in a way that is equal parts evocative and essential.