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The Tale, about a teen molested by a coach, is an unexpectedly vital film

Jennifer Fox’s “pure memoir” didn’t set out to dovetail with #MeToo, but it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Laura Dern and Isabel Nelisse in The Tale
Laura Dern and Isabel Nelisse in The Tale
Kyle Kaplan/Sundance Institute

Jennifer Fox’s The Tale premiered at Sundance on January 20, a day when women around the world were once again marching following a year of Donald Trump’s presidency as well as the swell of the #MeToo movement.

The first post-Weinstein Sundance included panels and discussions about sexual assault and women in Hollywood. There were visits, too, from attorney Gloria Allred, activist Jane Fonda, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, all subjects of documentaries playing at the festival — the feeling of change was in the air.

The Tale feels like it was made to premiere that day, though it’s been in the works for years. Fox (best known for her documentary series like Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman and An American Love Story) took her own harrowing story of being molested as a 13-year-old and turned it into a sensitive, innovative, even beautiful feature that cuts right at the heart of the most difficult conversations we’re having as a country.

The Tale is not a film that wears its importance on its sleeve, because it’s deeply personal. But at its January premiere, it felt prescient, almost prophetic — and the months since have only continued to prove how important it is.

The Tale follows a woman coming to terms with her own history of sexual abuse

To say that The Tale is about a 13-year-old girl molested by her running coach, and the adult woman she becomes, makes the movie sound like it’s veering into Lifetime Original Movie territory. Fox is a documentarian, and she knows turning a true story into a film can put the audience at a distance from what’s happening.

To combat that possibility, she pushes her “fiction” film as close to the nonfiction line as she can, letting the main character (played as a teenager by Isabelle Nélisse and as an adult by Laura Dern) bear her name and giving her younger self a story credit on the film.

The movie runs along two parallel tracks, with older Jennifer returning from a work trip abroad to discover that her mother (Ellen Burstyn) has unearthed a story that Jennifer wrote for an English class as a child. The story, as teenaged Jennifer insists and adult Jennifer prefers to maintain, is meant to be fiction. But it was written in the first person and concerns two adults — riding coach Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki) and running coach Bill (Jason Ritter) — who, as the young Jennifer wrote in the story, made her a “part” of their relationship.

Jennifer brushes off the story to her boyfriend Martin (Common) as something she wrote about her first boyfriend, who was “much older” than she was. But memories start to surface. She reluctantly digs backward and begins to grapple with what she’s tried to ignore all of her life: At 13, she wasn’t in a beautiful, open, honest relationship with an adult man and woman, but exploited and abused by a pedophile and likely repeat abuser.

For Jennifer, acknowledging that fact is troubling not just because she vehemently resists the label of “victim,” but because it means, in a sense, that she has to rewire the way she sees her life since.

Fox says The Tale is memoir, and it works as a way to control her own narrative

At a Q&A following the premiere in January, Fox called the film “pure memoir.” She said she felt she had to finally make it because the more she told her story, the more she heard from women who’d had similar experiences. Some of the names and places were changed, she said, but in substance the film closely matches her own, real-life experience of molestation.

Writer and director Jennifer Fox
Jennifer Fox wrote and directed The Tale, which she calls “pure memoir.”
Donna Viering / Sundance Institute

The film is searingly difficult to watch. Young Jenny is groomed by Mrs. G and Bill to believe that she is special and unique, more mature than the other girls who work with the coaches and more worthy of being drawn into their relationship. She believes that they are bringing her into something special, that when Bill begins a sexual relationship with her it’s because he loves her, and not because she’s a ready target for a predator.

Nélisse’s performance sensitively evokes those emotions that young Jenny feels without discounting them. (The scenes in which her character is raped by Bill were shot with an adult body double.) That helps us understand the resistance that adult Jennifer feels, even as we’re horrified at what we can clearly see is happening to the young girl. Adult Jennifer addresses characters from her past directly in her memory, and they talk back to her with a frankness that’s unnerving. (Debicki’s performance is especially chilling.)

The Tale feels like Fox’s effort to regain control of her own narrative, to tell the story in a way that’s emotionally as well as factually truthful, and though the filmmaking occasionally dips in some rocky, too-slow patches, the result is an overwhelming success. The scenes in which she stumbles over how to characterize her experience — was she a victim or not? and who gets to decide? — feel almost unbearably honest.

Just as adult Jennifer is revisiting her own story as narrated by her teen self, filmmaker Jennifer is re-narrating her own story in a way that includes the audience, bringing clarity to confounding experiences.

In The Tale, Fox takes an experience that’s far, far too common — and newly visible in American culture — and mines it for its emotional heft, turning it into an interrogation of how those who’ve experienced assault and abuse go on to navigate their lives. It is a story of a woman taking her life back, nested in a film serving the same purpose.

Like any good memoir, it provides a pathway on which women who’ve had similar experiences might find some space to do the same. The Tale is not easy to watch, but it’s a vital touchstone for a culture trying to come to grips with the role abuse and assault has played in far, far too many lives.

The Tale premieres on HBO on May 26.