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Sundance London 2018 Review: The Tale – “A timely reflection on memory”

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As a documentary filmmaker, Jennifer Fox is no stranger to the telling of complicated and deeply personal stories of others. But she’s the subject this time. The Tale is an emotionally exhausting but nuanced study of the experience abuse and trauma on a person.

The film opens with a trigger warning about its subject matter of adolescent abuse, and that it’s based on Jennifer Fox’s own experience.

It opens by establishing Jennifer (Laura Dern) a documentary filmmaker and lecturer building trust with her female subjects, extracting personal stories.  She returns home from a shoot to a string of frantic voicemails from her mother (Ellen Burstyn), disturbed by a story written by a teenage Jennifer. Her mum mails her the story, at first, she brushes it off as being about an older boyfriend. That’s the story she’s told herself, until now. An argument with her fiance (Common Martin) reveals this was a much older adult, that it was rape.

Jennifer shuts it down: she’s not a ‘victim’ it’s not how she remembers it.  The first flashback to a younger Jennifer riding a horse towards Mrs G (Elizabeth Debiki) and Bill (Jason Ritter) – the married woman and divorced man whom she describes as being a ‘part of both’ in the story is young, but not that young. Then her mother reminds her she was 13 the summer she went away. The flashback sequence is replayed  with a  younger child on a horse. The words don’t change, but the story does. Jennifer saw herself as older than she was.

From here on the film has two Jennifers. Middle-aged Jennifer and teenage Jenny (both names are used) played by Isabelle Nélisse. Their recollections are sometimes in direct conflict with one another about the sequence and detail of events.

It’s eerie to see how easily Jenny was manipulated. At home, she was one of five, in a chaotic household. Not neglected by any means, but craving attention. Then, taking her horse to a local farm to work in the summer of 73’ everything changed. There she’s taken in by the farm’s owner, Mrs G and her neighbour, sports coach Bill.

Mrs G  is a stern and proper English woman, married to an older doctor. Jenny even vies for Mrs G’s affection against the two other, slightly older girls Becky and Franny all of whom are in awe of her. While Bill appears to everyone as the all-American sports coach: clean cut and smiling.

Some of the films most chilling moments are in the routine, even mundane detail that proceeds some its most harrowing scenes. Mrs G bakes an apple pie and lets Jenny in on her baking secret.

The underage sex scenes are played using an adult body double, but the coerciveness of Bill’s words are almost as disturbing as the rape itself.

The film is as much of a study in identity, and the fragility of memory as it is about abuse. Laura Dern’s Jennifer investigates her story as methodically as if it were one of her documentaries. She visits other people who were around at the time, including an elderly Mrs G (Frances Conroy) and Becky (Jodi Long). Mrs G now seems like a lonely alcoholic, not keen on remembering details of the past.  It takes a long time for Jenny to come to the realisation that her mother and partner have known all along: it was not a relationship. It was abuse.

This was how The Tale ’s script was written, through piecing together parts of her memories with help from those who were there. Her investigation leads her to re-examine her sense of self from past to present – the way Ari Folman did (albeit with very a different style and subject matter) in Waltz With Bashir or Sarah Polley in Stories We Tell.

A timely reflection on memory that will linger in the mind after.

The Tale premiered on HBO in the US. It screens at Sundance London Thursday 31st May and Sunday 2nd June.

Check out our Sundance London coverage
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