'The Tale': Film Review | Sundance 2018

An audacious work that blurs boundaries between fiction and nonfiction.

Laura Dern stars as a woman delving into her past in documentary-maker Jennifer Fox's first narrative feature, a work drawn from her own experience of sexual abuse.

Although programmed at Sundance in the U.S. dramatic competition and described by its director, Jennifer Fox (Beirut: The Last Home Movie, An American Love Story), as her first fiction feature, The Tale is a sui generis work, a quasi-autobiographical story seen through a glass darkly. Going so far as to name the central character (played with guts and grit by Laura Dern) Jennifer Fox, this conceptually audacious drama tracks a documentary maker as she re-examines with adult eyes a sexual relationship she had as a 13-year-old ("It was the '70s," she rationalizes) with a much older man (Jason Ritter) espousing "free love" BS. Further complicating things, his other, adult lover (Elizabeth Debicki), a horse-riding instructor whom Fox worshipped at the time, was more than a little complicit in the abuse.

Straight-to-camera speeches, games of temporal disjunction and moments when the narrator/protagonist interacts directly with her younger self and people still in the past work as edgy devices that help express the fragility of memory. Social media was soon abuzz with praise after the film's premiere, with many rightly lauding the bravery of Fox's work of creative nonfiction, one that draws so directly from her own experience, even though, per the end credits, "identifiable elements of characters, places and events have been changed."

Nevertheless, there are plenty of jagged edges here that lessen the film's fluency and impact, including sometimes excessively didactic, expository dialogue that luckily the fine cast can pull off. Paradoxically, although this story springs from such a personal place, at times the execution feels oddly a little generic, a fault that might be attributable to budget restrictions. Nevertheless, the timeliness of the subject and the honesty of its presentation should ensure interest from viewers, programmers and buyers alike.

Inevitably, comparisons will be drawn with Marielle Heller's thematically similar The Diary of a Teenage Girl, itself a Sundance premiere from 2015, and like The Tale a story that draws on real events — in Diary's case things that happened to graphic novelist Phoebe Gloeckner when she was 15 years old. Although just as formally daring, Diary has smoother edges and a more jocular, playful tone that sneaks up on viewers before sucker punching them with ugly moral truths.

That said, The Tale would have a much harder time if Fox went jocular given the age and appearance of the child being abused here. For most of the film, she's played by the remarkable Isabelle Nelisse as a 13-year-old, an actor who was actually 11 during filming. (End credits reassuringly state that an adult body double performed in her place for the sex scenes.) Indeed, one of Fox's most effective sleights of hand is the way she deploys two young actors in the same role played by Dern as an adult. At first, the adult Fox remembers herself as looking much older (this version played by Jessica Sarah Flaum) than she actually was at the time. Once her mother (Ellen Burstyn) finds a photograph to show her exactly what she looked like in 1972, the film runs "replay scenes," showing the same material all over again but with Nelisse as 13-year-old Jenny instead of Flaum. The end result is to reinforce just how shocking it is that young Fox was "dating" a 40-year-old man.

It's devices like this (elsewhere, action is run in reverse) that help to underscore the slippery nature of memory and the near-impossibility of establishing a singular conclusive account of what happened. No doubt this is one reason Fox has chosen to tell this story with actors instead of making a documentary to delve into her own past.

Even the inciting incident that kicks things off complicates the matter of what was/is real and what was/is fiction. Opening in the present day, Dern's Fox is working on a doc project about women that looks much like the "real" Fox's own recent series Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman. She's also contentedly engaged to the supportive Martin (Common).

Out of the blue, her mother Nettie (Burstyn in the present, Laura Allen later in flashbacks) calls to discuss a "story" Jennifer wrote when she was an adolescent — the tale that gives the film its name — which is read in voiceover and gets name-checked as the screenplay's source in the end credits. Her handwritten story on buff-colored paper describes young Jenny's love for a handsome track coach named Bill (Ritter in the '70s, John Heard in the present) and a glamorous English riding teacher, Jane Graham, known to her students as Mrs. G (Debicki, then Frances Conroy, both terrific). Jenny's account rhapsodizes over their menage a trois as if it were a beautiful, convention-defying love affair, an attitude that even her schoolteacher questioned at the time — although she clearly didn't think to report it to the authorities.

Nettie is highly disturbed by the story, news to her, and wants to know what really happened. At first, Jennifer, loath to see herself as any kind of victim, is dismissive of Nettie's concern, brushing it off as it were all just ancient history involving her first "boyfriend." But after she starts looking through the old family photo albums and thinking back to that time, she finds herself going on a quest to reconnect with the people in her past, starting with a friend (Jodi Long as an adult, Shay Lee Abeson as a child) who also attended Mrs. G's riding school, as did a girl named Franny (Isabella Amara, then Tina Parker), who, it turns out, is still with the now aged and booze-soaked Mrs. G, working as a kind of factotum and stable hand. A lunch with the two of them stirs up further memories.

One of the singular aspects of Fox's script is that it honors the messiness of real-life events, even if that means the film itself sometimes feels messy. There are strange peripheral characters that swim literally in and out of focus, digressions about Fox's chaotic home life with four siblings and distracted parents who don't really understand her devotion to riding and running. "Jews don't ride horses," notes her father (Matthew Rauch), but if letting his daughter spend weekends at Mrs. G's house makes her happy, then so be it.

But it's over these weekends that Bill gradually grooms Jenny, shown in shockingly explicit sequences, and as the adult Jennifer recalls more and more details she comes to understand how Mrs. G was not just turning a blind eye, but far more sinister and complicit.

Ultimately, where the film is truly challenging, and potentially controversial for some, is in the way it questions the nature of victimhood, and how young women, longing to feel loved and desired, and needing to assert agency for their actions, effectively collaborate in their own abuse and its covering-up. That doesn't mean we should blame the victims or exonerate any of the adults involved, but Fox's film does illustrate how complex and nuanced these situations can be, especially when they took place in the aftermath of the counterculture's reframing of sexual norms. Just saying "It was the '70s" doesn't let anyone off the hook, but it does contextualize a set of permissive-to-the-point-of-lax attitudes toward child sexuality.

In terms of craft, the filmmakers evoke the period with subtlety — possibly too much subtlety, so that the different time frames aren't always easily distinguishable. On the other hand, that might be entirely the point, but it's hard to tell with this slippery, thought-provoking and thoroughly compelling film.

 

Production companies: A Gamechanger Films, Luminous Mind production in association with Untitled Entertainment, Blackbird, One Two Films, Fork Films in co-production with ZDF
Cast: Laura Dern, Isabelle Nelisse, Elizabeth Debicki, Jason Ritter, Frances Conroy, John Heard, Common, Ellen Burstyn, Jessica Sarah Flaum
Director-screenwriter: Jennifer Fox, based on the story 'The Tale' by Jenny Fox
Producers: Oren Moverman, Lawrence Inglee, Laura Rister, Jennifer Fox, Mynette Louie, Sol Bondy, Simone Pero, Regina K. Scully, Lynda Weinman
Executive producers: Julie Parker Benello, Dan Cogan, Geralyn Dreyfous, Wendy Ettinger, Abigail E. Disney, Robert & Penny Fox, Jayme Lemons, Amy Rodrigue, Ali Jazayeri, Jason Van Eman, David Van Eman, Ross Marroso, Ben McConley
Director of photography: Denis Lenoir, Ivan Strasburg
Production designer: Debbie De Villa
Costume designer: Tricia Gray
Editor: Alex Hall, Gary Levy, Anne Fabini
Music: Ariel Marx
Casting: Matthew Maisto
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

114 minutes