The Tale (5 stars)

The Tale

Sundance London 2018: Astonishingly brave autobiographical drama from Jennifer Fox, starring Laura Dern

The fearless truth-telling of the #MeToo movement finds a kindred spirit in this complex and remarkable film from documentarian Jennifer Fox. Her first narrative feature is closely based on her personal experience of being sexually abused as a 13-year-old and the journey she went on to accept what happened to her.

Laura Dern stars as Jennifer, a filmmaker and academic who prides herself on her ability to extract confessions from others but who, at 48, has yet to acknowledge her own abuse at the hands of two trusted adults, even to herself. She's defensive when her bullish, mortified mother (Ellen Burstyn) uncovers the titular tale, a story Jennifer wrote as a teen which hints at the truth and was passed off at school as an imaginative fabrication.

Refusing to conceive of herself as a victim, it's a time in her life that Jennifer has continued to view through the rose-tinted reminiscences of a naive minor. In flashbacks to the 70s we see how smitten she was with her riding instructor Mrs G (played by Elizabeth Debicki as a young woman and Frances Conroy in her later years) – ostensibly elegant, she's really a manipulative and depraved woman who grooms Jennifer for her running coach lover Bill (Jason Ritter, then John Heard).

The Tale is frank about Jennifer's denial and delusions; she's initially protective of her precious memories and Fox shows us the raft of emotions she must have experienced as she slowly sifts the truth from the lies. Jennifer investigates her own life as she would a documentary subject – chasing down leads, interrogating witnesses.

Dern is breathtaking as she grits her teeth and faces her fears, while Fox's courage and skill are hard to overstate. The film cleverly explores the unreliable nature of memory, through canny casting and shifting recollections. The recasting of the younger Jennifer is triggered when her mother reminds her just how diminutive and unworldly she was at 13, while the statuesque, Princess Diana-like Debicki becomes the frail, embittered Conroy. Both Mrs G and Bill morph into the cowards and cretins that they are when Jennifer comes to terms with the ugly reality of their actions, and her anger is finally unleashed.

Screening as part of Sundance London 2018. General release TBC.

The Tale

  • 5 stars
  • 2018
  • US
  • 1h 54min
  • Directed by: Jennifer Fox
  • Cast: Laura Dern, Isabelle Nélisse, Elizabeth Debicki, Jason Ritter, Frances Conroy, John Heard, Common, Ellen Burstyn