The documentary form commands a great deal of power and prestige. It allows us to explore a new part of our real world through the lens of a documentarian. Jennifer Fox has made a career in this format, exploring Tibetan Buddhism and the Beirut War among other topics in her films. However, the most powerful story she’s had to tell was her own. In “The Tale,” which was scooped up by HBO at Sundance for a whopping $10 million, Fox turns the camera on herself. Not literally. However, she constructs a riveting narrative that spans over four decades and talks about the nuances of child molestation.
Laura Dern inhabits the role of Jennifer, a non-veiled version of director Fox. A successful documentarian, Jennifer receives a call from her mother, Nettie (Ellen Burstyn). She discovers letters and essays by Jennifer at the age of 13 that reveal her early sexual experiences with her running and riding coaches. As she re-reads these letters from her childhood, Jennifer re-contextualizes her experiences. She had always viewed herself as older and more in control. Seeing herself as a young, small 13-year-old and the way she was taken advantage of leads her to investigate further.
Fox weaves between present-day Jennifer and young 13-year-old Jenny in intricate, surprising and often messy ways. It’s not just us watching Dern’s Jennifer remember what Isabelle Nelisse’s Jenny went through. We get older Jennifer talking to younger Jenny. We see understand how traumatic events shape our own perceptions of the past. In remembering who we were as teenagers, we also have to contend with how different we become. Younger Jenny yells at older Jennifer, telling her that “she doesn’t understand what she’s going through.” Dern’s Jennifer isn’t just searching for answers, she’s searching for understanding. She wants to see how these events have changed and shaped her and how they might further inform her present.
Laura Dern’s career is a marvel. She’s excelled at bringing to life characters that range from campy villain fun (Renata Klein in “Big Little Lies”), heartfelt rage with a comedic edge (Amy Jellicoe in “Enlightened”) to sources of warmth and strength in the face of troubles (Bobbi in “Wild”). In fact, all of her characters contain different shades of all these pillars. Her performance as Jennifer ranks as one of her career best, matching or beating all of the aforementioned roles. Dern plays every note – sadness, grief, strength, bravado, fear and anger – in each scene and every line reading. Her curiosity comes from a more guttural urge as if unseen forces compel her to confront this part in her past. Dern unleashes this force. She assumes this role so fully and commits to it with such frightening intensity. There are few actors on her level.
Portraying a younger version of Jennifer, intertwined with Dern at her peak, is a daunting challenge. Luckily, Isabelle Nelisse knocks her performance as Jenny out of the park. It would be too easy to show 13-year-old Jenny as quiet, looking for love and as a victim. Nelisse finds an inner core of strength that brings to life the more interesting elements of child molestation. She falls for her counselors and finds these experiences put her above other classmates. She prescribes herself an almost unearned self-confidence based on horrifying abuse. Her scenes with Dern bring to life a rebellion steeped out of pain. It’s an incredibly lived-in performance that does as much to bring us into the psyche of an abused child as Dern’s present-day scenes do.
The rest of the cast shines as well, as facts and character perceptions are never as they seem. Elizabeth Debicki and Jason Ritter are an uneasy shade of warm and inviting as Mrs. G and Bill, Jenny’s horse riding and running coaches, respectively. There’s a larger to life air about them. Debicki, in particular, finds an imposing physicality to the role that makes her seem so imposing, without baldly telegraphing everything. Ritter plays the nice guy who takes careful time before sharing his true motivations. It’s exemplary to see Fox make these characters, stand-ins for abusers who she encountered, so fully formed. The more we become intoxicated by the world and environment these adults create, the more we can’t shake the events depicted. It’s riveting work.
The manner in which “The Tale” treats child molestation is unlike any film that has touched this before. It seems less concerned with the salacious details of the abuse. Instead, it concentrates on the emotional toll that comes before and after said abuse. The process of grooming starts long before the abuse. Recognizing Jenny’s need for love and validation begins the process. An incredible early scene features Mrs. G and Bill sitting Jenny down and telling her how much potential she has, and also about their affair together. They build Jenny’s confidence up, but then tie that in with the secret of their sexual affair. They introduce sex into the mind of this girl and build the abuse on this foundation.
As Jennifer does work interviewing other women who were victims of child molestation, she finds they all say that at the time they enjoyed it. As these girls are pushed into the world of adult sexuality, they sometimes try and justify it or wear it as a badge of honor. The way people, especially minors, react to sexual abuse is complicated to unravel. “The Tale” deeply understands and conveys the emotional cartwheels the mind does to victims as they reframe their narrative. It’s a groundbreaking and haunting piece of work that is a necessary viewing.