I was originally going to see The Tale during my quick trip to Sundance but was unable to attend. I patiently waited to see if it would be picked up for distribution. Luckily for me (and to everyone’s surprise) the film was acquired by HBO. This was on everyone’s mind during the festival, popping up in conversation amongst almost every movie-goer, so you can imagine my anticipation in seeing what all of the chatter was about.
The Tale was written and directed by Jennifer Fox. She has frequented Sundance in the past with her documentaries, but this time her movie was featured in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. It’s a vulnerable memoir about Fox’s experience with sexual abuse as a teenager from her running coach, and she isn’t afraid to tell her story with complete transparency.
When the film opens, we're introduced to Jennifer (Laura Dern) who is a successful documentary filmmaker and professor. The tone of the picture shifts after receiving a call from her mother about a story she stumbled on that Jennifer wrote as an adolescent. The story, aptly named “The Tale”, is a romanticized telling of a relationship that 13-year-old Jennifer (Isabelle Nélisse) had with her much older running coach, Bill (Jason Ritter). When Jennifer's mother mails her the story to read, she begins toiling away trying to uncover the truth behind “The Tale”. As questions begins to arise through old photos, letters, and meetings with familiar faces from childhood, she discovers that her narrative isn’t a story of love, but a heartbreaking one of grooming and rape.
Fox’s vulnerability, both in front of and behind the camera, shines through and leaves the viewer emotionally invested from the very beginning. It's shot in a way that feels similar to a documentary. Middle-aged Jennifer executes her skills as a documentarian to question her teenage self, sometimes in the same scene, and we realize that young Jennifer defines their story differently. It highlights the struggles many of us have faced at that age of wanting to be independent and, as young Jennifer mentions in the film, wanting to take our lives into our own hands. There's a sense of sympathy between both of them while trying to understand, and cope, with the situation.
Suffering is complex and this film makes that known to its audience. Recovery is not something that happens immediately, nor is it an easy or graceful process. As Fox says in the film, “we tell ourselves stories in order to survive”. This feature breaks down that sentence into a stunning work of cinema.
The Tale is available to stream on HBO! Give it a watch, but be aware of the content.