The Tale (2018)
Written & Directed by Jennifer Fox
Jennifer Fox is a successful documentarian and film professor, in her 40s living in New York City. Life is great for her. Then her mother calls upset because she found one of Jennifer’s short stories she wrote when she was in middle school. She sends the story to her daughter who suddenly begins to recall the summer of her thirteenth year that she spent living with a horseback riding teacher, Mrs. G. A neighbor, Bill, was having an affair with Mrs. G and worked as a running coach to make sure Jennifer and the two other girls attending kept in shape. But Jennifer doesn’t remember what happened completely right and as she speaks with others her memories shift and change. She had thought she was fifteen at the time — the details of Mrs. G and Bill’s relationship blur. Also, most important of all Jennifer remembers having a relationship with Bill as well. The deeper she goes, the more she uncovers and clarifies.
The Tale is first and foremost a film about the illusory nature of memory, especially when confronted with trauma. There are so many ways this could be approached that would feel rote, but Fox becomes very meta-textual with her film and seeks to incorporate elements of documentary filmmaking into this narrative movie. An off-screen Jennifer (played by Laura Dern) figuratively questions Mrs. G in the same you might see Errol Morris interrogate one of his film’s subjects. The same happens with Bill and then finally her younger self. The thirteen-year-old Jennifer is a character unto herself, separate from the adult Fox. Young Jenny has very different ideas about love, sex, and her own experiences and she does a damn good job convincing her adult self that everything was fine. However, that is the nature of adults when confronting this type of trauma they have justified, they convince themselves they were just mature for their age, and they were equals with the person who raped them.
There’s a refrain throughout the picture about what happened between Bill and Jenny that is some variation of “it was the seventies” which is a good point to bring up. There is so much of 1970s culture when it comes to children and sexuality that is mindblowing in a modern context. I think there is an argument to be made that adults should speak honestly with children when questioned about sexuality, but so much of what happened in that decade and that was subsequently excused lept across any boundary of decency. When you see Playboy pictorials featuring a pre-pubescent Brooke Shields you have to wonder what malignancy in her mother’s mind would have allowed for such a thing. “It was the seventies” is one of many phrases used by women and men to push aside serious abuses. “Boys will be boys,” “locker room talk,” these are all code for “It was no big deal.”
Throughout the picture, Bill uses grooming language that refers to treating Jenny as an equal and that they should have completely honest between them. I genuinely believe that Bill thought he loved Jenny, but that is because he’s severely mentally ill. I appreciated that the film did not discount the possibility of victimizers being victims themselves, yet never allowed them to use that as an excuse for their behavior and choices as adults. Bill gaslights Jenny at every turn, convincing her that what they are doing is her decision which in turn creates a broiling confusion that manifests itself in physical illness.
Beyond the direct subject matter of childhood sexual trauma, The Tale is a fantastic meditation on memory framed as a detective story. Jennifer is combing through testimonies and evidence trying to piece together chunks of her past that have seemed crystal clear for so long but now emerge as muddied. While the movie centers around the short story Jenny wrote in school the audience is never made privy to the entire document, only those pieces director Fox chooses to share with us. A forgotten photograph found between the pages of a book opens up doors that resurrect a character whom Jennifer had totally forgotten was there that whole summer. Fox is making a broader statement about the nature of ourselves, how we so often define whom we are with imagined falsehoods. Sometimes these are positive and protect, yet other times we use them to save ourselves from confronting the dark things that fester.