Sundance London: The Tale

The Tale
The Tale
Directed by Jennifer Fox
Starring Laura Dern, Isabelle Nélisse, Jason Ritter, Elizabeth Debicki, Ellen Burstyn, Frances Conroy and Common

by Joanna Orland

An immensely personal story for Jennifer Fox, The Tale depicts the director’s abuse as a child, her relationship with the memory of it, and the complex path to dealing with the trauma. The power of the film lies in a woman telling her own story in her own way, taking back control of the narrative of what happened to her; all the while, educating the audience of the complexities of sexual abuse of children.

The Tale begins when Jennifer’s mother finds a copy of a story that her daughter wrote when she was still at school. Jennifer had always said that her first relationship was with an older man, but as this written story reveals, in truth, that man was 40-years-old while Jennifer was merely 13. As she rereads the story of her youth, she finds it to not be consistent with her memory of the situation at all, as she comes to the realization that she was sexually abused.

Laura Dern as the adult Jennifer is wonderful. A fine balance of strength and vulnerability make her captivating to watch as she is fully in control of the narrative, even through flashbacks to her past. The clever way the director uses distorted memories to unravel this story is heightened by Dern’s portrayal as the emotional core of the film. Even though the traumatic events are happening to a young Jennifer played by Isabelle Nélisse, it’s Dern that carries the weight of the trauma. And of course it has to be so with such sensitive subject matter. I can’t even wrap my head around how director Fox worked with young Isabelle to film such controversial scenes. Obviously an adult body double was used during any sexual scenes, but still, the context of Isabelle’s performance must have been clear to her for her to achieve such a sensitive performance.

The supporting cast is just as strong as Laura Dern in the lead. Elizabeth Debicki as the young Mrs. G is as infatuating as she is ominous. Frances Conroy as the woman in her later years brings an underlying dark edge, unspoken yet everpresent. Ellen Burstyn as adult Jennifer’s mother plays her part perfectly, never wallowing in the tragedy of not knowing what happened to her daughter, holding back subtle anger at the situation and at herself. Burstyn is a refined actress who never treads into the melodrama of what a film role like this could provide. In fact, The Tale is not at all played for the drama of the situation. It feels like a thoroughly realistic and respectful exploration of child abuse and the way a child, and subsequently an adult, would come to terms with what happened.

While the women in this film are all producing fantastic performances, kudos must be given to Jason Ritter. Normally known for playing lovable doofuses, in the role of predatory coach Bill, he breaks the mould in a truly creepy and sinister turn. His smile usually associated with fun-loving characters is used here to play against type. This could not have been an easy role to take on neither physically nor emotionally. He does an excellent job with what is asked of him, and it will be difficult to see him go back to the more light-hearted fare he often features in.

The personal aspect of The Tale, alongside the cleverness of its structure and the fantastic performances, does not make this film any more comfortable to watch. It’s masterfully done and inspiring to see what Jennifer has artistically done with her past trauma.


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