The Tale is a study of memory and trauma, and how the two grapple with each other. In tackling sexual abuse it is unflinching, clear-eyed, but also kind towards its victims. It is based on writer and director Jennifer Fox’s own experience as a victim of abuse, and indeed her “character”, played by Laura Dern, is presented here with her real name, assuming no pretense of fictionalization.
It all begins when Jennifer’s mother discovers with a shock a letter in which young Jenny talks of a “relationship” she had with two adult friends of the family. Jennifer has sealed this in a box in her mind, filed it as an experience she had when she was a teenager, but rereading the letter and framing those memories with her mother’s, she now realizes she was only thirteen; a child. It was not a relationship.
The fluid, unreliable nature of memory is a central theme of this movie, and its greatest directorial achievement. We see flashbacks as Jennifer experiences them: multiple times, over and over again, as details change and the act of remembrance squeezes more detail out of her memories. In reality, despite the repetition, we never see the same scene twice: either the memory has changed, or the prism through which we look at it has, and could you explain the difference? Reading her letters or clippings brings forward moments that she had long forgotten: a comment here, a glance there, that force her to reevaluate her own experiences.
The movie follows Jennifer’s travel down her own mind to its conclusion, pulling no punches, until she is able to reframe her recollections and confront her own suffering. It is a portrait of trauma, and the coping mechanisms that survivors are forced to adopt, including denying themselves their own victimhood. The way it weaves a story from these threads, dipping in and out of the past so much like our minds do, is nothing short of masterful.
Ellen Burstyn and Elizabeth Debicki round out a solid supporting cast, but in the centre of it all is Laura Dern, who is yet to find a role she couldn’t do. She inhabits this person effortlessly and takes her through an incredible emotional journey. Her performance is subdued, as befits someone who has built a life and is looking at something that happened over thirty years ago, but at the same time she paints the enormity of what she is now realizing.
It is not easy, nor is it meant to be, but it is true, and that is the first step.