Moving through buried emotional trauma often means going to battle with a bottomless well of memories, some of them pristinely preserved, others selectively suppressed. Documentarian turned fiction director Jennifer Fox now follows one such struggle, her own: The Tale is a personal memoir that deepens into a gut-wrenching true story of sexual abuse (after more than 30 years of the filmmaker's own self-denial). Timely and disquieting, The Tale has resonance with the #MeToo moment; it also feels like a burst artery. It’s not an easy watch, nor is it supposed to be.
Fox was an introverted 13-year-old during the summer of 1973, when she learned horse riding—among other things—at a rustic farm. Before meeting the young Jenny, though, we're introduced to fortysomething Jennifer, played by Laura Dern with an astounding blend of confidence, anger and fragility. A successful journalist and docmaker leading a seemingly perfect existence, Fox enjoys a lucrative career and a fulfilling sex life with her supportive fiancé, Martin (Common). But things begin to capsize when Jennifer's concerned mother (Ellen Burstyn) unearths an essay her daughter wrote for English class as a teen.
“Something so beautiful” is how Jenny (Isabelle Nélisse, heartbreakingly vulnerable) refers on the page to her double relationship with the frosty, angelic riding instructor "Mrs. G" (Elizabeth Debicki, excellent and blood-curdling) and ex-Olympic athlete Bill (a boyishly trustworthy Jason Ritter, commendable for signing onto such a punishing part). But "beautiful" isn’t the whole story: Over a summer spent on Mrs. G’s farm, the two adults lure Jenny into a sexual relationship, a manipulation the girl is too young to resist or even recognize as inappropriate. First told through brightly lit flashbacks that resemble heavenly postcards, The Tale deepens into something much darker as the grown-up Jennifer slowly pieces together the details of her past, chasing down interviews and asking the tough questions she couldn't as a kid. (Be warned: Fox isn't shy to show us rape scenes, necessary to her story and filmed with adult body-doubles.)
Structurally adventurous, The Tale toggles between differing versions of Jennifer’s memory, which sharpens from Dern's initial haze into a fury. Journeying through her subconscious and interrogating her own recollections (Fox achieves this via straight-to-the-camera interviews with the characters, some of them scarily unrepentant), the onscreen facts take on new shapes and forms, in the style of such self-revising movies as Rashomon and Citizen Kane.
Throughout The Tale, with its dreamlike editing by Alex Hall and Gary Levy, the past intersects with the present, and the truth with fabrication—sometimes in the same frame, when characters from different time periods confrontationally share the screen. It's a bold, significant piece of work: an investigative thriller with a grave finale that stuns you into silence, then, hopefully, something more.