The Tale is a spiralling and endlessly fascinating work. Non-fiction filmmaker Jennifer Fox applies her documentarian’s eye to her own childhood, peeling back onion-like layers of memory and teasingly playing with the slipperiness of truth in a film that fictionalises her life.
This quietly rigorous method can sometimes feel a little cold, yet such is The Tale’s power that it plays on the mind days after watching. Pace and tone occasionally shift abruptly, stepping the emotional flatness up several gears and making the audience feel as blindsided as Fox herself must have done. The structure can be befuddling and fragmentary but this is a small and fitting price to pay for following such an unflinching personal metanarrative.
Laura Dern is quite simply magnificent as the fictionalised Fox – no one else is even imaginable in the role. As if that weren’t enough of a coup, Dern goes head to head with Ellen Burstyn as Fox’s mother. It’s an absolutely dynamite casting combo and irrefutably advocates for “older” women on screen. The mother-daughter scenes are awash with grey shades of moral uncertainty, tackling an experience comparable to a storyline from Amazon’s Transparent but with infinitely greater depth and sensitivity.
Like Benedict Andrews’ Una, this is a riveting look at the long-term impact of childhood sexual abuse, but Fox’s film achieves an unprecedented facet of formal experimentation and is far less morally dubious. (It’s a relief to learn that the frank yet never gratuitous scenes of abuse were filmed with an adult body double).
The Tale is an extraordinary piece of storytelling and a daring confessional. You’ve seen nothing like it before; on one level it’s a beguiling, heartbreaking story of trauma, and on another an insightful and groundbreaking investigative rumination on documentary filmmaking. Jennifer Fox is as brave as she is talented.
CAST: Laura Dern, Ellen Burstyn, Elizabeth Debicki, Isabelle Nélisse, Jason Ritter
WRITER: Jennifer Fox
DIRECTOR: Jennifer Fox
SYNOPSIS: An investigation into one woman’s memory as she is forced to re-examine her first sexual relationship and the stories we tell ourselves in order to survive.