“The Tale”: Recovering Trauma Memory and Meaning

…does a better job than any film I can recall at exploring the malleability of memory, particularly in relationship to trauma, and the stories people tell themselves to avoid feeling victimized. Sara Stewart, New York Post, reviewing The Tale

Airing on HBO tomorrow night, The Tale is a drama based on documentarian Jennifer Foxs real-life experience of childhood sexual trauma.

David Ehrlich, Indiewire: “’The Tale’ opens with a destabilizing line of narration: ‘The story you are about to see is true…as far as I know.’ The voice belongs not to Fox, but — unmistakably — to Laura Dern, embodying her director with great sympathy and a crinkled hint of self-loathing.”

Viewers meet Jennifer, the lead character, decades after the abuse. She’s a journalist engaged to Martin (Common). It just happens that her mother (Ellen Burstyn) finds an old essay (“The Tale”) written by her daughter way back when. Tomris Laffly, Time Out:

‘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.)

Watch the trailer:

Selected Thoughts from Reviewers

Leslie Felperin, Hollywood Reporter:  

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.

David Ehrlich, Indiewire: “An immense, brave, and genuinely earth-shaking self-portrait that explores sexual assault with a degree of nuance and humility often missing from the current discourse.”

Alissa Wilkinson, Vox: “In The Tale, Fox takes an experience that’s far, far too common — and newly visible in American culture — and mines it for its emotional heft, turning it into an interrogation of how those who’ve experienced assault and abuse go on to navigate their lives. It is a story of a woman taking her life back, nested in a film serving the same purpose.”

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