The Tale movie review: An unmissable experience, one of the bravest films of 2018 so far
Director - Jennifer Fox
Cast - Laura Dern, Isabelle Nélisse, Jason Ritter, Elizabeth Debicki, Blythe Danner, Common
Rating - 4.5/5
“The story you’re about to see is true,” says Jenny as the screen fades in, and then she adds the words that will irrevocably change everything: “As far as I know.”
We’ve often heard movies make claims such as this - even the ones that are completely fictional. Especially the ones that are fictional. But The Tale relies absolutely on the words - and memories - of one person. Jennifer Fox was 13 when she entered into a ‘relationship’ with her 40-year-old track coach. The abuse began shortly afterwards, and continued for months, insidious and unnoticed.
Even in real life, words and memories are all that victims of abuse have. It is their only weapon in a near impossible fight for truth, for themselves, and for their future. They will be ignored, they will be humiliated, and they will be blamed, but as long as they have conviction in their beliefs, they will survive.
The Tale is an uncompromising self-portrait, a painful memoir of an artist battling her past. Fox, an award-winning documentarian, makes her narrative debut here, with the great Laura Dern taking on the immense responsibility of doing her story the justice that it deserves, the justice that was so heartbreakingly missing from her real life.
Now in her 40s, Jenny - as played by Dern in the movie - is an accomplished documentary filmmaker, and a respected college professor who has the tendency of challenging her students in her lectures. She’s feisty when she demands that they settle for nothing but the truth, and she insists that they develop skills that will enable them to spot the liars. She is a passionate lover to her longtime fiancé, whom she has kept in the dark about her past, and she has the most oddly matter-of-fact relationship with her mother, played by Blyth Danner. Every interaction they have in the film has the impersonality and emotional detachment of a long-distance telephone conversation, although there is the sense that it has taken them months - if not years of keeping secrets - to arrive at even a basic level of candour.
Jenny’s mother tells her that her antennas were always on alert whenever Bill, the track coach, would come over. It was just not right, she says, but she swears she didn’t know anything about what was happening.
There is guilt, there is denial, there is anger, and there are all sorts of feelings too complicated to simply pen down here, even though it is a childhood story, written by Jenny when she was 13, that triggers the events depicted in the film.
The story - discovered by Jenny’s mother in a literal unearthing of the past - unleashes memories she’d spent decades burying in the furthest recesses of her mind. It also provokes her into tracking down the individuals who were a part of her life back then, and were complicit in covering up her abuse.
Bill, as she remembers him - as far as she knew - was a charming man. He would routinely make her feel special, singling her out from the rest of his students. Little did she know that he was pulling the same strategy on them too. But she was 13. She was a child. He was someone she trusted, especially since she had no one at home who seemed to understand her, or even pay her the slightest bit of attention. She was lonely. She was insecure. She was neglected. She was the perfect prey.
In the present, the elder Jenny lives in denial - she struggles to maintain a steely appearance before her friends and students, the strain it takes to shut out her past visible underneath every false smile. But behind every innocuous touch is an inescapable memory, and behind every innocent word is a reminder of long buried secrets.
The Tale is a story of two protagonists, each of whom clashes with the other on the fundamental truths about the person that binds them together - Jennifer Fox, who isn’t so much having a conversation with herself as confronting it. And both the actors she has chosen to embody her memories - Laura Dern and the young Isabelle Nélisse - are phenomenal. And such is the structure of the film - like a half-forgotten dream remembered with a jolt - that the performances are our only tether to reality.
It takes brave actors to take on such roles, but I was particularly blown away by Jason Ritter’s performance as Bill. In one of the best examples of perfect casting that you will ever see, Ritter has taken on the sort of role that has a reputation of giving some of the greatest actors in history cold feet. And he plays him not like a two-dimensional monster, but an immensely complicated person grappling with his own demons, yet completely devoid of empathy.
As we grow older our memories tend to dissolve into themselves. The Tale is the story of one person, but it could so easily be the story of countless others. With the Larry Nassar case so fresh in our minds, it has added relevance. It is a delicate film, made with a delicate touch. There is no doubt in my mind that it is one of the best of the year, and I am immensely proud of having contributed to its perfect 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes. It is available on Hotstar, if you’re ever in the mood for a truly rewarding experience.
Watch the trailer for The Tale here
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