“The story you are about to see is true. As far as I know.” Thus begins HBO’s The Tale. Written and directed by filmmaker-documentarian Jennifer Fox, The Tale is based on her own experiences of sexual abuse as a child. Laura Dern slips into Fox’s role in the film. The film begins when Jennifer is a 48-year-old woman. She receives calls from her mother who has discovered a short story she wrote in school. The story details the “relationship” she had as a 13-year-old. Her mother is distressed to know that her “boyfriend” Bill, a horse-riding coach in a summer-camp she attended, was a 40-something man.
Jennifer herself, however, is just confused. She has only a vague recollection of the events of that summer. She does recall that she had a sort of a “relationship”, but remembers it as a beautiful thing. She does not think it was rape and thinks she was old enough to decide for herself. Not old enough to be an adult, but at least post-pubescent. There is a visual dissonance that comes when Jennifer corrects her memory of a slender, fifteen-year-old girl to a boyish 13-year-old pre-pubescent girl she really was in that summer camp after her mother shows her old photos. It would be statutory rape either way, but Jennifer tells herself it was the 70s. Such things happened, didn’t they?
After her mother insists, she decides to reassess the experiences of that summer camp by talking to other women who also attended the summer camp as young girls. She has to turn her precise documentarian gaze upon herself. She also meets Mrs G, the conductor of the camp. Jennifer remembers her as a beautiful and intimidating married woman who was having an affair with Bill, and not a bitter woman who went through child sexual abuse herself.
The things she discovers horrify Jennifer. That summer was not the fairytale she remembers it to be. With Mrs G’s collaboration, Bill repeatedly raped Jennifer after sexually grooming her. Jennifer, too young and innocent to comprehend what was happening, got along with it even as she threw up every time afterwards. Bill told her she is special and that they are lovers. For a young girl who thought herself as unwanted in her household of five children, the attention Bill and Mrs G showered over her was too much to resist. Oh, and it is likely that she was not the only one.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Jennifer Fox acknowledges at one point to her students in documentary classes she takes. The realisation strikes her that she was burying the unpleasant memories of that summer deep inside her brain and cooked up an alternate version of the events so she will not have to deal with what really happened. This was her mind’s way of coping with the trauma.
As one can tell, the film is extremely disturbing to watch. There is no sanitisation for the sensitive ones. Which is perfect, as in this age of #MeToo, we can no longer wish such stories away. The rape scenes are filmed with a body double but they are realistic enough to leave an impact.
Laura Dern, as usual, is superb. She was Jennifer Fox’s first choice and seems to have brought her own understanding to the story that is basically Fox’s memoir. The child actress Isabelle Nélisse also leaves an impression.
In the film’s many meta moments, the adult Jennifer holds conversations with the child Jennifer. The adult Jennifer tries to warn the child Jennifer, who responds with belligerence, as she would to any adult telling her what she should not do. The Tale ends with a powerful, poignant shot. The adult and child Jennifers sitting quietly beside each other in a public toilet, exhausted, dealing with their own despair.
The Tale is streaming on Hotstar.