Documentarian Jennifer Fox’s first narrative film, “The Tale,” is and will remain one of the most brave feats of storytelling film industry has seen in a long while.
This film is an account of her own experiences with childhood sexual assault and manipulation, and is vital for the #MeToo era. It's a bold, challenging exploration of memory and the processes by which victims struggle to cope with the things they’ve suffered through. Fox’s gut-wrenching and emotionally stirring film takes the viewer through the safety net of false truths she’s built for herself to hide past pains.
Laura Dern stars in the film as Fox, a journalist and professor forced to confront past traumas when her mother discovers a story – “The Tale” – she wrote at age 13, detailing a disturbing and illicit sexual relationship she had with two athletic coaches.
Fox’s film is a triumph of narrative storytelling because of how deftly she navigates the differences between documentary and narrative film. This is a deeply personal account that's heightened by the extreme sensitivity with which she approaches the difficult topics at hand. Its complexity is further compounded by the empathy she extends to her characters and the means by which she tells the story.
An early sequence underlines her preference for visual storytelling and her gut-wrenching approach to the truth: Fox envisions the same sequence twice, depicted before and after a pivotal realization.
As Jennifer initially recalls the experiences outlined in her story, we’re shown in flashback the meeting between Jenny – played by Jessica Sarah Flaum, an actress in her teens – and horseback riding and running coaches, and she’s confident. After finding a picture of herself at 13, Fox posits another envisioning of the same sequence mere minutes later, with a substantially younger actress, Isabelle Nélisse in the role. She’s a shy, youthful child.
With not a word spoken, Fox has driven home with unforgettable force the idea at the core of this deeply personal story – that there is a dissonance between the truth and the stories we tell ourselves to survive. The rest of the film plays out both as a quest for personal catharsis, which extends well beyond the confines of the film, and for truth, a quest that feels vital in the age of fake news and powerful within the context of the #MeToo movement.
It’s also a movie that’s anchored firmly to Fox’s own story. It’s not so much actively political as implicitly significant within a larger context — which is both a testament to the power and bravery of Fox’s willingness to tell her story on such a large-scale platform and a reminder of the importance of listening to the stories of victims. Here is a story with profoundly personal ramifications and concerns severe emotional traumas. Nowhere is Fox demanding anything of audiences but to listen to her.
Her documentary roots also feel particularly significant in her work here. The film's innate reliance on truth and empathy are the building blocks and life force of the nonfiction narrative. There’s a compassion to her storytelling, and an earnestness and immediacy to her filmmaking that lends it its searing power.
“The Tale” is a movie about truth – about hiding it, hiding from it and, ultimately, confronting it. It’s the perfect encapsulation of a cultural, social and political moment when truth is challenged both as a virtue of everyday life and as a force for equality.
With “The Tale,” Jennifer Fox is telling her truth. It’s a powerful, emotionally brutal watch and one that features numerous sequences of blood-boiling, stomach-churning material that’s so deeply disturbing it’s hard to watch. Always, it feels overwhelming, and at times it even feels like too much, but this is Fox’s story to tell. She exhibits the courage to tell it at all and the agency to do so on her own terms, and that is the real triumph.
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