The minute the lights came up after the first screening of The Tale (U.S. Dramatic Category) audiences from the front row to the balcony rose to their feet at the 1,200 seat Eccles theater—and with good reason. Writer-director Jennifer Fox has one way or another been working on telling her story for the past 40 years with the first shared iteration of her experience manifesting itself as a somewhat suggestive school essay the year the events happened, when she was 13 years-old. Literally just months after the #MeToo campaign began, her timing is perfect as the world finally now has a #MeToo movie.
The Tale focuses on its protagonist Jennifer Fox (Laura Dern) coming to grips with what really transpired during her first sexual encounter back in the summer of 1973. It turns out Jennifer’s horse riding coach, Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki), manipulated then 13 year-old Jenny (Isabelle Nélisse) into falling for her 40-something running coach Bill (Jason Ritter) in hopes of having them all delve into a ménages a trois.
What leads grown-up Jennifer to reflect on her past is when her mother (Ellyn Burstyn) finds the school paper she wrote about three people being in love, and realizes what her teachers could not see at the time – that her daughter had been molested. As Jennifer begins to remember the events and recount them to us, we quickly learn she’s an unreliable narrator as both her 13 year-old self and the mature woman became often interpret the events vastly differently as the truth is sought out.
The brilliance of Fox’s script is the non-linear style within which The Tale is told, whereby we see scenes repeat and play out differently as Jennifer’s repressed memories continue to bubble to the surface and takeover the sometimes cheerier place-holder memories Jenny chose as a defense mechanism. The narrative also cross-cuts over time, for instance, just as we flashback to see Jenny boldly decide to enter a relationship with Bill, we see her current relationship, with her fiancé Martin (Common) begin to disintegrate.
In a strange way, The Tale has moments that handle time and relationships similarly to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind wherein memories continue to change and evolve and play out and have consequences both within the protagonist’s mind and the real world as well. The Tale at times also reminds me of another Sundance film, which also features an adult reinterpreting repressed childhood memories of molestation, Gregg Araki’s excellent 2005 feature, Mysterious Skin (starring Joseph Gordon Levitt). It’s worth a watch if you’ve never seen it before as it’s so rare to see such honesty and intimacy on the screen when dealing with such difficult subject matter.
The performances in The Tale are strong across the board and Dern will deservedly get awards recognition—but without a doubt the breakout performance comes from an unlikely place. While it’s devastating to witness Jenny decide she wants to engage sexually with an older man (mainly because she wants to prove she’s mature enough and is fooled by him) the way the Bill (the predator) is written and performed manages to drag a fog of dark realism into the frame which ends up blanketing the entire narrative.
Ritter is known for playing good guy characters and is currently headlining TV’s Kevin (Probably) Saves the World and in a sick and twisted way was clearly cast to play Bill as a nice guy. Fox has likely taken her own experience of being manipulated and wrote a classical antagonist here, in the sense that Bill truly believes what he’s doing isn’t wrong. In fact, at one point he tells Jenny how he’s saving her from men, whom he claims wouldn’t care for her as much as he does. Ritter delivers an utterly creepy and tonally pitch perfect performance that shows how Jenny could be lured in by a man who clearly considered himself a do-gooder even though he is nothing other than a child molester. During the Q&A, Fox and Ritter explained how they used adult body doubles for any scenes depicting a sexual nature and that special care was taken to run as healthy set, especially given the disturbing nature of some of the story.
Ultimately as Fox finds the courage to battle the demons of her past in order to pursue a brighter future, The Tale becomes a journey of enlightenment for both its protagonist and its audience. When it hits theaters, don’t miss this excellently written film!
Looking for interviews with today’s top filmmakers and storytellers? We hope you’ll check out our in-depth pieces for Backstory Magazine! You can see Issue 30’s Table of Contents – or we hope you will consider – Subscribing!
READ MORE FROM THE 2018 SUNDANCE GUIDE:
Jennifer, a globetrotting journalist and professor, lives an enviable life with her boyfriend in New York City. That is, until her mother finds a story Jennifer wrote at age 13 depicting a “special” relationship with two adult coaches. Reading the yellowed pages of “The Tale,” Jennifer discovers the coded details she composed 40 years earlier are quite unlike her recollection. Deeply shaken yet determined to square her version of events with the truth, Jennifer sets out to find her two coaches. Returning to the Carolina horse farm where so much transpired, Jennifer’s gangly yet tenacious seventh-grade self reawakens, and the loving stories she told herself for decades begin to unravel.
Seamlessly toggling between past and present, writer/director Jennifer Fox forges a fresh and uncompromising cinematic language to penetrate the heightened internal worlds of her character at two pivotal stages. Shocking, emotionally raw, and destabilizing, this investigative thriller punctures the insidious workings of unchecked power and lays bare the mechanisms of memory—refashioned over time by a growing girl in order to not only survive, but to prevail.
Learn about the filmmakers involved:
Jennifer Fox’s groundbreaking works as a director include Beirut: The Last Home Movie (winner of a documentary Grand Jury Prize at the 1988 Sundance Film Festival), the Gracie Award–winning An American Love Story (1999 Sundance Film Festival), Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman (2007 Sundance Film Festival), and the Emmy nominee My Reincarnation. Fox has also executive produced several award-winning films, including On the Ropes(an Academy Award nominee for best documentary feature).
Cast & Credits
Director: Jennifer Fox
Screenwriter: Jennifer Fox
Executive Producers: Julie Parker Benello / Dan Cogan / Geralyn Dreyfous / Wendy Ettinger / Abigail E. Disney
Cinematographers: Denis Lenois / Ivan Strasburg
Editors: Alex Hall / Gary Levy / Anne Fabini
Principal cast: Laura Dern / Isabelle Nélisse / Jason Ritter / Elizabeth Debicki / Ellen Burstyn / Common