Four days after The Tale premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Larry Nassar faced his final legal fate. “Topical” wasn’t a strong enough word for how the film looked, adjacent to the current events it seemed to be processing, dramatizing, making cathartic in real time. Here, after all, was a portrait of a woman confronting the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her coach—a powerful cinematic memoir whose details echoed the numerous accusations against Nassar, the USA Gymnastics team doctor now looking at a life behind bars for his decades of violations. Of course, the hard truth is that no matter how relevant The Tale seemed in coincidental proximity to breaking news (to say nothing of its general resonance during the ongoing #MeToo movement), its true story is as disturbingly timeless as it is timely. There are a lot of Larry Nassars out there. For too many of them, a reckoning has never arrived.
The Tale is about one of these men, a predator that disguised himself as a mentor, using his position of power to take advantage of someone too young to know what was happening to her. Jennifer Fox, the film’s writer and director, was 13 years old when she met him, in the summer of 1973, and entered into a relationship she long thought of as consensual. More than just a tough, clear-eyed account of that experience, her film, which airs on HBO tomorrow, gets into the process of processing trauma—the way our minds distort and omit, creating an imperfect record, sometimes to shelter us from the truth. Fox, in other words, isn’t just grappling with her memories. She’s grappling with how she remembered.
When we first meet the fortysomething filmmaker, played on screen by Laura Dern, she’s relegated the illegal relationship to the filing cabinet of her youth, misidentifying it as a common case of an older teenager dating an older man. The catalyst for reevaluating what she sees as her first romance is an old English assignment that her mother (Ellen Burstyn) has uncovered, and is understandably distraught about—a thinly disguised personal essay that Fox wrote shortly after that fateful summer, when she spent her days under the tutelage of exotically, imposingly British stable owner and horse-riding trainer Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki), who introduced her young student to Bill (Jason Ritter), the grown man who would become her running coach, and soon after, her statutory rapist. The end credits designate The Tale an adaptation of this ancient class paper, and indeed, the filmmaker uses her younger self’s written reflections as a guide, helping her interrogate an experience she long ago crystallized in her mind.
Fox is a nonfiction filmmaker by trade—this is her first narrative feature, after such acclaimed films as Beirut: The Last Home Movie and My Reincarnation—and the version of her that Dern plays here approaches the mystery of her past like a documentarian on assignment, tracking down and interviewing anyone who may or may not have known about the abuse. (If she can’t trust her own perspective on what happened, can a more objective record of events be compiled from the accounts of witnesses?) Leaping back and forth in time, The Tale also finds inventive ways to convey how Fox begins to recontextualize her memories. Scenes of her time on the ranch with Mrs. G feature an older teenager in the role—right up to the point where Fox sees a picture of herself from that summer and realizes how young she actually was, prompting the film to restage the same flashbacks with a younger actor (Mama’s Isabelle Nélisse). Fox makes literal the conversation between the past and the present by locking herself into dialogue with her ancient impressions of these people, including the 13-year-old she used to be. “You have no idea what’s going to happen,” she fruitlessly tries to warn her younger self.
It’s a strategy that recalls Paula Vogel’s acclaimed stage play How I Learned To Drive, which also used fourth-wall-breaking techniques to examine a woman’s traipse through her own traumatic childhood memories. Fox, like Vogel, spares us little. It’s not just the sex scenes—carefully and about as tastefully filmed as possible, with an adult body double—that make The Tale so gut-wrenching. (Though one does have to wonder if they’re the reason the film is airing on HBO rather than braving a theatrical release.) There’s also the way Fox conveys, with queasy care and a clarity that may come only from her experience, the hows of grooming and sexual abuse—the tools of manipulation employed by someone trying to break down the defenses of a child. Bill, who insists the young girls he trains cultishly refer to him as “Naga,” preys on Jenny’s desire to be seen as an adult and equal (“a deep soul,” he calls her), her resentment toward her parents, and the taboo excitement of a shared secret. Ritter, who was pretty brave to take this role in the first place, dares to play Bill as Fox remembers him: inviting, charismatic, finally a little sad. Perhaps the trickier depiction is of Mrs. G. She’s the real question mark in Fox’s mind, and Debicki depicts her as essentially unknowable: a ghost of a memory of a cipher, whose complicity remains an unsolved mystery of motive.
There are times when The Tale’s investigative structure borders on the schematic. The present-day characters, from Burstyn’s prodding parent to Fox’s concerned fiancé (sensitively played by Common), often come across like devices themselves, there only to usher Fox further along on her journey. (In a sense, they’re as much projections as the memory versions of Bill, Mrs. G, and young Jenny that she converses with in voice-over.) But Dern keeps The Tale grounded in an emotional present tense. So much of the film’s power rests on a dawning awareness, and the star makes that internal struggle external. When Fox encourages one of the students in her documentary college course to discuss her first sexual experience for the class, Dern turns her silent reaction to the story—her coming to terms with the rite of passage, and the innocence, that was stolen from her—into an awful awakening, the ache of realization scrawled across her face. Is there an actor better equipped to turn mental energy into riveting spectacle? She makes reading junior high homework look compelling.
“I’m not the victim of this story,” Jenny tells her future self. “I’m the hero.” It’s the distance between those roles, and how we choose to tell the stories that shape us, that Fox is really after. After decades of freezing that one formative summer in her mind, she has to cope not only with the aftershocks it sent through her own life, but also with the reality that she was one of many—that Bill, whose “love” she finally puts into proper context, was just beginning his pattern of abuse. The Tale builds inexorably to a confrontation, a shattering of silence that makes it feel, even more than it had before, like a movie very much for our present cultural moment. But its real drama comes earlier, in the private struggle Fox immortalizes: that battle between the fictions we write in our mind and the harsh reality they can only disguise for so long.