An unflinching look at sexual abuse and the messy path to recovery which will elicit strong reviews and online commentary

The Tale

Dir: Jennifer Fox. US. 2017. 114mins

“The body remembers everything.” That line is said to The Tale’s main adult character as she tries to recapture her childhood ability to ride horses, but it also serves as this shattering drama’s warning about the power of memory. Writer-director Jennifer Fox excavates her experience of being sexually abused as a teen, ambitiously weaving together the past and the present to illustrate how the people we become are so deeply shaped by the children we were that it’s not always clear which version of ourselves is taking the lead. Laura Dern stuns in this unforgettable personal exploration of living with trauma.

The Tale has a harrowing, desperate vibrancy which is consistently riveting

Screening in Sundance’s US Dramatic competition, The Tale has emerged as one of the festival’s most-talked-about entries, although it’s unclear whether all the conversation regarding the film’s difficult subject matter will translate into significant theatrical business. An unflinching look at sexual abuse and the messy path to recovery, the film will elicit strong reviews and online commentary.

Making her feature debut after decades as a documentary filmmaker, Fox (Beirut: The Last Home Movie) casts Dern to play herself, Jenny Fox, a successful New York documentarian. One day, her worried mother Nettie (Ellen Burstyn) calls, discovering a short story that Jenny wrote when she was 13 that describes a sexual relationship she had with an older man. Nettie wants to know if the story is based on personal experience, inspiring Jenny (who hadn’t thought about the piece in years) to do some investigating. Eventually, Jenny begins to wonder if she hasn’t romanticised that time in her life — and if she was raped by her charismatic running coach Bill (Jason Ritter).

The Tale has a bracing urgency, not just because the film is based on true events but because of how Fox crafts her narrative. It’s not uncommon for films to jump between past and present — sometimes having the two timelines intersect — but Fox’s background as a documentarian informs the inquisitive and self-examining nature of this story to a fascinating degree.

We meet the key players in 13 year-old Jenny’s life — Isabelle Nélisse plays the younger version of Jenny — and quickly discover that they’re not necessarily reliable constructions. Perhaps they’re merely the distorted memories of adult Jenny — especially those of her riding instructor Mrs G (a supremely frosty Elizabeth Debicki) and the warm, encouraging Bill. We see traditional flashbacks of Jenny’s interactions with these characters, who made her feel valued in a way no one else in her life did, but there are also moments when the adult Jenny tries to question them, as if she’s a documentarian interviewing her subjects.

But if all documentaries are about the challenge of crafting a version of the truth, then The Tale examines the question further: how much can we rely on our memories? And do we have a better perspective on past events from our current vantage point or from how we felt back then?

This may make The Tale sound crushingly dry and intellectual, when in fact the film has a harrowing, desperate vibrancy which is consistently riveting. Dern beautifully plays a woman who thought she understood her life and career, only to realise that she has been in denial about a key chapter in her upbringing.

As the younger Jenny, Nélisse conveys both innocence and intelligence, and her developing relationship with the older Bill is utterly believable, no matter how uncomfortable their budding romantic rapport might make some viewers feel. Much credit goes to Ritter, who convincingly plays Bill as a smiling, damaged man who has long since convinced himself that he’s acting morally — as he explains at one point, he loves young girls because they still have the capacity to feel things deeply.

Unsurprisingly, The Tale can sometimes feel overlong or overwrought, as if the raw emotions coursing through Jenny (and the filmmaker) are too powerful to contain. But as a portrait of one woman’s acceptance of being raped, the movie unearths a host of relevant themes, including how women are taught to keep quiet about their traumas and why it’s so difficult for victims of abuse to come forward. Brilliantly constructed and heartrendingly performed, The Tale feels as cathartic and cleansing as a primal scream.

Production companies: Gamechanger Films, Luminous Mind, Untitled Entertainment, Blackbird, One Two Films, ZDF, ARTE, Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, Artemis Rising Foundation, Heavin-Weinman Family Trust Charitable Gift Fund, Fork Films, WeatherVane Productions

US sales: ICM, and; and Untitled Entertainment, International sales: Mongrel Media,

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

Screenplay: Jennifer Fox, based on The Tale written by Jenny Fox

Cinematography: Denis Lenoir, Ivan Strasburg

Production design: Debbie De Villa

Editors: Alex Hall, Gary Levy, Anne Fabini

Music: Ariel Marx

Main Cast: Laura Dern, Isabelle Nélisse, Elizabeth Debicki, Jason Ritter, Frances Conroy, John Heard, Common, Ellen Burstyn