Take note, folks, because this is not a sentence you’ll hear me say very often:
I don’t even know what to say.
Let me start here: Jennifer Fox has just done something utterly brilliant, and you need to see it. Be prepared to feel uncomfortable, because The Tale, adapted from her narrative memoir of the same name, will do a number on your head, in the way that a particularly vivid nightmare sometimes can, whether you personally have a childhood sexual abuse story or not.
Now I have to say the other thing. A lot of people appear to be calling The Tale the movie “for the #MeToo movement.”
So: That “Zeitgeist” thing I’m always talking about? It can be a little bit of a monomaniac. Or a bully. Or it can be like when you look at a packed stadium crowd and think the word “yellow” and suddenly all the people wearing yellow stand out like… like they’re wearing a loud, bright color.
This film was made three years ago. It’s not a response to or the property of any movement, any hashtag; it’s not finally, finally pulling back the veil on the terrible stories no one ever told until now. We have always told these stories. They have always existed and we have always told them. We just didn’t do it with hashtags. To even characterize this film as “a story about sexual abuse” would be a shallow read on a very deep work of art. The Tale is, at a certain level, “about” sexual abuse. But focus on that for too long and you’ll miss the astonishing, courageous, gorgeous mosaic of ways in which it is deliberately, doggedly and totally not. And that’d be your loss.
This is a film about the morphing quicksand terrain of human memory and it’s about the stories we tell ourselves in order to stay sane and most of all it’s about the Plinian, volcanic power of emotional honesty. If you want to talk about the spirit of the moment, the guiding spirit of the times, maybe we need to pan back from anything as specific as sexual abuse of girls and women and talk about why being honest is the ultimate act of revolution.
Jennifer Fox (Laura Dern) is a woman in her forties—independent, successful, living her life as a journalist and professor, with an accomplished fiancé (Common, who manages to pack a lot of substance into a role that doesn’t make a ton of room for it) and a generally good life. She fields a hysterical phone call from her mother (Ellen Burstyn), who has just found a “story” in a storage box. The story is younger Jennifer’s account of her “relationship” with an older man named Bill (Jason Ritter) when she was a teenager. As her mother goes on about it, Jennifer dismisses her, saying she never told her because she knew this was how she’d react, and yeah, OK, so she was only 15, but…
“You were 13 that summer.”
Not that fifteen wouldn’t also be statutory rape, but the lithe nymphet in Jennifer’s memory is suddenly edited back to a frightened-looking prepubescent girl (Isabelle Nélisse), and Jennifer finds herself in an unexpected confrontation with her own revision of history. The rest of the movie follows Jennifer through the process of attempting to reckon with what actually happened to her. She’s an investigative journalist, right? So she does what she does, retracing steps, interviewing people who were there, trying to piece together some kind of truth.
A lot of people like to decide in advance what the truth is, and bend the “facts” around whatever they have already decided is true. Let’s say you believe the Earth is flat. You see beautiful photographs of the planet from space, clearly showing it to be spherical, and decide they must be fake. You take a transcontinental flight and decide you’re “seeing things” versus seeing things. You are crystal clear that the Apollo moon landing was a media hoax (even though if you are this person you are probably also the kind who reveres “heroes” like fighter pilots and astronauts and yet it has never occurred to you that your bizarre ideation around the moon landing is a massive insult to the legions of scientists and pilots who worked to make it happen). If Earth is flat in your opinion, you cannot be swayed by any evidence to the contrary. You are not wrong; the evidence is.
Jennifer Fox does not want you to see her, her story, or anything else in the universe through that kind of lens. This is not Lolita. Well, it’s almost like an inside-out Lolita, in the sense that both stories are about pernicious, unreliable narrators. Fox’s great act of courage is acknowledging, accepting, and integrating the unreliable narrator in her own mind (which happens in a wonderful parting image where young Jennifer and adult Jennifer sit together on the floor of a public restroom just taking each other in). Because we each have one. Whether we were abused or not, assaulted or not, manipulated or not. She would like you to know it isn’t “victim-blaming” to accept that shit’s complicated, and that “resistance” has a flipside and so does “acceptance.” Or that someone can be both a mentor and a tormentor, and neither washes out the other. By the end, young Jennifer and adult Jennifer both know that they tried to protect each other, that they both failed, and that they’re both allowed to move on.
There are probably other actors who could have played Fox’s screen avatar and turned in fine performances, but Laura Dern is one of the all-time masters of the ecotone: She’s an edge-dweller to the bone, inhabiting the spaces where tenacity meets fragility, where humor meets anger, where masterful meets vulnerable. It’s a perfect synthesis of character and performer, and in a character-driven film that’s everything. Fox’s younger-self iteration, Isabel Nélisse, is equally stunning; precocious (intellectually, much more than sexually), a little rebellious, a little fearful, a little lonely. The way they trade off in the voiceover narrative (verbatim from actual Jennifer Fox’s actual 13-year-old account, for which she did indeed get an A in English) is absolutely masterful, as the older woman’s confidence devolves in the face of the child’s naïve, compensating confidence. Ritter uses his natural warmth to jarring effect as the grown man who manipulates a 13-year-old into believing they are in a “relationship.” (He might believe it himself, in a way; he’s not secretive about it. Jenny’s parents know him, and his social circle and older children know Jenny.) And Elizabeth Debicki is both glowing and chilling as Mrs. G, the equestrian coach with whom Jenny spends the summer and who procures younger girls for Bill.
Plenty of people make autobiographical films. This is so deeply and specifically autobiographical that it almost becomes something else. Fox as director and writer puts her documentarian’s tools to work in a way that creates a meta-textual tapestry depicting the ways in which our memories inform (and misinform) our self-concept. Beneath “Oh, the evil world and the stories we tell ourselves in order to cope,” which is most certainly a thing, there’s a deeper thing, which is the plain developmental fact that memory is a moving target. We receive our experiences through the lenses and filters of the person we are when the experience occurs. Looking back on childhood as adults, we might see all kinds of things: We didn’t realize what our parents were doing was getting stoned because we didn’t know what getting stoned was or felt like. We see later that the neighbor was clearly having an affair with the general contractor, but we didn’t understand the concept of “affair” at the time even as we did understand the rhythm of the truck’s presence and absence from the driveway. We understand “love” and “abandonment” and “loneliness” and “feeling special” long before we understand who we are as sexually or emotionally mature beings, so there is no concept of consent in a child who hasn’t yet apprehended where the line is between affection and abuse. Fox’s script refuses to lean on the simple, digestible notion that abuse forces people to rewrite memories as a defense mechanism. It accepts the reality that no one’s memories are 100% reliable, that perhaps even the abuser remembers things differently and for no better or more malign reason than the abused do. That the brain and the mind shift and so do our perceptions of our experiences—one does not have to have been raped to have developed edited, redacted, augmented, or otherwise “doctored” memories. Revised memory is not the exclusive provenance of child abuse survivors. We all have them. Which makes it that much harder to look the truth in the eye and say “I see you and I understand you.” The truth isn’t always obvious, even when it seems like it should be. And processing it isn’t the special task of people who have been victimized in singularly vicious ways. It’s everyone’s.
If you’ve ever met, oh, say, a life coach, you are probably familiar with the idea of deliberately “rewriting” your inner narrative as an act of empowerment. In a moment where public shaming and “call-out culture” have begun to seem like the imperatives of an honest person, it’s important to remember that factual honesty and emotional honesty are not the same thing. You doubtless know a few people who have been eaten alive by their trauma stories—perhaps you are one of them. Sometimes people do not recover from a loss or a betrayal or a violation (Hi, DSM-V code 309.81 here, you?) and feel ashamed of their inability to walk it off, rise above it, move on. Sometimes people don’t feel ashamed of this at all, and in fact construct an entire persona based on that bad thing that happened. Sometimes people use it to justify every single thing that didn’t go the way they wanted it to. Sometimes a person refuses to so much as shake hands with someone without saying, “Hello, I’m Jane and I’m a rape survivor,” and if you were to ask them why they’d feel the need to lay that on a stranger at a cocktail party they’d give you a withering look and say “Because I am a rape survivor.” As if this were literally part of their name or title. While for many such people this doesn’t feel like a “choice,” it technically is one. We don’t choose the bad things that happen to us… Well, or do we? Thirteen-year-old Jenny Fox feels she did. Insists on it, actually. Adult Jenny is a lot more confused on that point. Is one of them right and one of them wrong? I’m going to go out on a scary limb here and say no. The fact is, 13-year-old Jenny was sexually abused. At the time, part of her probably knew that and part of her probably didn’t, because not everything is simple when you’re 13. Her emotional truth shifted even though the factual truth of what happened to her did not. That Jenny also saw her family as a miserable train wreck; adult Jenny looks back at the same memories and sees basically non-monstrous people doing their best. Sifting through the past looking for “truth” is exhausting and confusing and crazy-making in part because it is, ironically, a moving target. It’s the lies that don’t change. Lies stand around for decades, arms akimbo, screaming bloody murder at anyone who’d dare to question them. Truth sheds its skin like a reptile over and over and for the same reason—because it keeps expanding and needs to break free of containers that can no longer accommodate it.
Memory is not static. What happens to us happens to us, but how we interpret it and what we allow it to mean can and arguably should shift over the course of a life. (There are often diagnostic codes for the things we become when they don’t.) It’s not about erasing it, not about letting that guy get away with what he did (Dern doesn’t—indeed, her final confrontation with her abuser is pitch-perfect, public and blistering), not about refusing to let your wounded inner 13-year-old define you or refusing to let her talk or refusing to admit she’s there. It’s about the reality that we must each find ways to integrate our various compartmentalized selves, to be able to say, “Yeah, so this happened and I am willing to look it in the eye” and at the same time “Yeah, so that happened and it sucked and it doesn’t define me” and even “Yeah, that was a crappy thing that happened but every experience has a flipside and I am willing to focus on whatever ironically positive contribution it made to who I am now.” Integration of our various selves is the foundation of emotional honesty or integrity. For those of you playing any etymology drinking games at home, both words come from the same Latin root, integer, which means “whole.”
I’m saying, please do not call The Tale “a #MeToo movie.” It’s reductive. And this beautiful, gripping, disturbing film deserves to be looked at with as much nuance as it offers. It’s not a damned hashtag-anything movie, it’s a potent and poetic autobiography that refuses polemic or politics. It manages to dive so deeply into the personal that it explodes into something universal. There is incredible power in learning to live with your ambiguities and it requires a radically open mind. If everyone had one of those, imagine what we could accomplish. If you walk away from this film tsk-ing over the horrors of child sexual abuse, you’ve missed half of the movie. If you walk away asking yourself, “Am I living my life with integrity?” you’re onto something that might help to get us out of this #shitshow and into a world where it is OK to be who we are.
The Tale premieres Saturday, May 26 at 10 p.m. on HBO.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.