You might think a film becoming one of Sundance’s buzziest titles this year and heading to a premium cable outlet rather than any of the number of distribution studio buyers, instinctively circling the festivities like ever-hungry sharks, would be an explosive sign of the times, creating an urgent conversation about the medium’s future and what it means for traditional forms of distribution; a conversation that would risk transcending the very film that catalyzed the debate. Though of course, the now-yearly presences of organizations like Netflix have all but dulled this thought into an accepted normality, ensuring Jennifer Fox’s haunting memoir The Tale never played second fiddle to its choice of venue.
And to be additionally fair, in no rational world could any other external narrative supersede why The Tale got people talking in the first place. In a film in which Laura Dern stands in for Fox as a documentarian re-examining her first sexual relationship, trying to understand the who’s, what’s, how’s and why’s of her repressed memories, Fox employs her years of documentary filmmaking to deliver a story that’s as arresting as it is unflinching and unsettling. It’s a film that boldly asks us to look where we might have turned the other cheek – not to wholly ignore its particular images and the reality they communicate, but rather to keep them in the intangible realm of nightmares whose mark on the conscience is less definitive.
Squirm as we might, Fox’s unblinking, yet sensitive direction guides us through these moments and the profound emotional revelations that come along the way as comfortably as thought remotely possible, though they’re certainly no easier to ingest. But what makes the viewing experience so harrowing isn’t just the content itself – the controversial sex scene, in particular, involving Jason Ritter and Isabelle Nélisse is as simultaneously graphic and delicately handled as one could make a scene depicting sexual relations with a minor – but also the disarming nature of the storytelling surrounding these sequences and the waves of thought-provoking ideas and sobering pieces of necessary wisdom that crash on the conscience with equal parts force and care.
Unraveling in the fashion of a layered mystery, and with curious use of metafictional, subconscious documentary-type interviews, we learn along with Jennifer what is fact and fiction, slowly submitting ourselves to this long overdue severing of story and survival instinct, though the two may have once been essential partners, and realizing the complex emotional reactions associated with immediately addressing and revisiting the effects handed down by this sort of abuse. There is no ‘one size fits all’ example of and reaction to this trauma, and unfortunately, there is no way of knowing every single detail to these stories and their myriad of moving parts. Quite frequently, adult Jennifer, within the depths of her memory, makes hopeful inquiries of her younger self (Nélisse) as well as past Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki) and Bill (Ritter) only to come away without full answers.
In the context of Fox writing and directing this film based directly upon her own experiences as a young teenager – the film took her six years to write – this storytelling approach feels painfully reflective and honest. In the hands of any other filmmaker without the same past attempting the same style, the narrative might have risked embracing sensationalism, instead; forsaking the admirable nuances we hadn’t yet seen from many other features for dramatic effect. It’s a moving story told with all of the requisite soul, but in no way could you assert it’s tortured; deeply affected, yes, naturally, especially considering the piercing harm of language and sentiments that cause survivors to attach shame and guilt to their abuse, but nonetheless absolutely resilient.
We see it in the film’s final shot, an image at this juncture well-circulated among even the earliest ‘Best Of’ Sundance articles, not to mention the many subsequent pieces leading up to and after the film’s HBO premiere (yes, including this one). Dern, as Fox, sits against the tiled bathroom wall staring into nowhere; shaken and bemused, yet unbuckling, as she tries to grasp the fuller picture she wants, but cannot have. To her side is her 13-year old self, but her psychological presence is no more comforting than loneliness itself. What arguably exists in this frame, as well, is a complete lack of judgment, particularly from present-day Fox to her teenage self, for constructing a story that assured a livable existence.
We tell ourselves stories to survive, Dern’s Fox tells a class of documentary students, and it’s one of the few quotes in this film poignant enough not to require cult-like repetition, as opposed to many of the initially innocuous and vague sayings gifted to young Jenny by her secretly sinister teachers. Of course, The Tale is but one story amidst a sea of others with their own distinctions demanding understanding, but Fox’s own account, expressed in this way, asks that we actively consider the differences of all stories, engaging in a heartbreaking universality few filmmakers could effectively exude. Choosing HBO as a distribution partner is not only looking like savvy business sense, but also an integral component of doing what this film is supposed to do; start a dialogue and spread it widely.
If IMDb popularity numbers are to be believed and applied broadly to other search and audience reviewing metrics, that process has begun in earnest. Not that it would have needed awards to justify or maintain its social relevancy, but it’s also worth noting that a film, particularly one like this so entwined with public discourse, voluntarily removed from the Oscar conversation by joining television’s ranks is a bold and unprecedented move. It hardly needs even one Emmy to accomplish this, either, though at least a couple for its writer-director and any of its spectacular cast wouldn’t hurt.