“There are no bad horses, only bad riders.” There are any number of unnerving moments in Jennifer Fox’s “The Tale,” a landmark cine-memoir that’s as powerful and profoundly upsetting as any film since “The Act of Killing,” but they all seem to hatch from that tainted pearl of wisdom, passed down from a beautiful riding instructor to her naïve tween student before things go terribly wrong. It’s a coded message from an adult woman to a young girl, a pointed insistence that life is hard for the fairer sex, and that pain is just something they all push through. It’s a sinister ethos that makes victims feel ashamed of the violence they’ve suffered, and inspires them to refashion their worst traumas into badges of honor. It’s biasing the kinds of stories that someone might need to hear from their own body, and allowing for — if not tacitly permitting — another generation of rape.
That lesson was imparted to Fox in the summer of 1973, when she was 15, and it’s shaped so much of her self-image ever since. It’s the crux of a story so disturbing that the filmmaker — whose acclaimed documentary work includes “Beirut: The Last Home Movie” and “My Reincarnation” — has been unable to tell it to herself for much of the last 40 years. Not anymore. Now, that story is the subject of Fox’s first scripted feature, a staggering and radical work of self-analysis that’s also a remarkably lucid piece of autobiography. As she paradoxically dramatizes her own experience in order to explore how dangerous that can be, she also reveals how difficult it can be for people to see themselves.
“The Tale” opens with a destabilizing line of narration: “The story you are about to see is true… as far as I know.” The voice belongs not to Fox, but — unmistakably — to Laura Dern, embodying her director with great sympathy and a crinkled hint of self-loathing. A 48-year-old documentary filmmaker who’s spent most of her adult life traveling the world and telling other people’s stories, Jennifer appears to be doing all right for herself. She shares a spacious Manhattan loft with her long-time fiancée (Common), enjoys a decidedly active sex life, and sustains herself between projects by teaching non-fiction cinema at a local university. Then her mom (Ellen Burstyn) finds an essay that Jennifer wrote in grade school, and everything starts to unravel.
“I’d like to begin this story by telling you something so beautiful” the essay begins, the first line of a loving, starry-eyed ode to the two grown-ups who noticed her when she was a pre-pubescent tomboy, invisible to the world. At least, that’s how Jennifer remembers it. Reading the assignment for the first time, her mom has a very different reaction. To her eyes, it’s nothing less than a young girl’s first-hand account of predatory and unambiguous sexual assault. Jennifer laughs that off as the overprotective paranoia of an old Jewish mother who’s got nothing left to do but kvetch and worry, and yet… there’s something there, begging for her attention like the last flake of dead skin at the edge of an old scab. “When I was a child, I was obsessed with changing myself,” Jennifer says, “but now I can’t remember how I got here.”
And so, a natural chronicler of personal histories, she finally begins to investigate her own. Fox dedicates roughly 40 percent of “The Tale” to flashbacks of 1973, the extreme fallibility of which is established with an exclamation point when Jennifer is reminded that she was actually 13 years old that summer, and the teen actress playing her (Jessica Sarah Flaum) is abruptly recast with a much younger one (11-year-old Isabelle Nélisse, all too believable in the role). Just like that, the low-grade nausea simmering beneath the film foments into a steady boil. The guileless little girl, of course, can’t feel a thing; she’s defiantly headstrong and ready for her life to begin.
Her wish is granted when she starts taking horseback riding lessons at a rural farm that’s run with a cultish touch. Neither Jennifer nor her dad can see that strange energy, the both of them blinded by Mrs. G (a sickeningly good Elizabeth Debicki), the statuesque Brit who runs the place like Brienne of Tarth in riding chaps. Jennifer remembers her as “the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen.” Mr. G isn’t much of a factor, but an unsettlingly fresh-faced man named Bill (Jason Ritter) is always hanging around and recruiting girls for his track team. Jennifer forms a strange bond with these two, staying through August and traveling back to the farm every weekend once school starts up. Eventually, Mrs. G and Bill confess to the girl that they’re lovers, an ominous admission that opens the door to a number of much darker secrets.
“The Tale” liberally cuts between past and present, Fox scraping away at her own memories as though she’s dusting off a buried relic she once hid from herself. Shooting the flashbacks through an idyllic haze that stands in sharp contrast to the drab grays of the modern scenes, she galvanizes the dynamic between then and now by forcing the two into conversation with each other, Nélisse and Debicki often speaking directly into the camera as adult Jennifer interrogates the echoes that are pinging around her brain.
The closer that she gets to the truth, the more harrowing these self-reflexive tics become. As grim as the 1973 bits get (Ritter endowing his obscenely thankless role with a Cheshire Cat creepiness that will make you glad to learn that certain scenes were shot with an adult body double), the most painful moments of all find Jennifer in dialogue with these shadows in her soul. These unspeakably moving scenes provide Fox the perfect mechanism to confront some of the darkest notions she ever repressed; few films have ever had the courage or the context to so lucidly wrestle with the enabling power of silence, or the idea that abuse is even more pernicious when it’s pleasurable. The pride that Nélisse expresses as young Jennifer is almost as wrenching as the complicity that Debicki displays as her teacher. At one point, Debicki stares into the lens and delivers a line so loaded with violence that it will make your skin crawl right off your bones.
An immense, brave, and genuinely earth-shaking self-portrait that explores sexual assault with a degree of nuance and humility often missing from the current discourse, “The Tale” is undeniably primed for the #MeToo movement, but it’s also so much bigger than that. While the film triple underlines the vile nature of these crimes and the vital importance of our growing solidarity against them, to fully conflate Fox’s achievement with a political movement (even such a necessary one) could only diminish the personal scope of its power. “The Tale” is a film about women, but it’s also a film about one woman in particular, a woman who tells herself two very different stories in order to trace the path between them and learn who she is, and how she got here.
“The Tale” premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.