Jennifer Fox is a documentary filmmaker. One day, her mother discovered a short story she had written about a relationship she had with her riding coach and running coach when Jennifer was just 13 years old. In Jennifer’s mind this was a mature relationship, but viewed through her mother’s eyes and revisited anew as an adult, Jennifer had to come to terms with the fact that she was sexually abused and raped as a child.
This is a true story. Jennifer Fox is the writer/director of the narrative feature (her first), The Tale, which is based on the story above- her own life experience. It is very hard to watch, uncomfortable, heart breaking, beautiful, and necessary. It’s one of those films you want to recommend to everyone and also feel bad telling anyone to watch. It depicts things that should never happen to anyone, much less a child. But as Jennifer uncovers in her harrowing journey into the past, people take advantage of children, and turning a blind eye is just as evil.
Parts of this movie were too much for my wife and me. We had to fast-forward through some scenes out of sheer disgust and horror. That doesn’t mean the movie is unnecessarily graphic; it just depicts true things that are stomach-churning. I can imagine it being very difficult for anyone who has experienced any kind of sexual abuse to sit through this movie because of how unflinching the portrayal is.
I actually admire the way this story is told, without looking away from the things that are hard and terrible. I think a lot of times films think they are doing the audience a favor by hinting at terrible things, but then have those things happen off screen. This allows filmmakers to sensationalize without alienating the audience by showing the horror we don’t even dare to imagine. Fox’s film looks it directly in the eye, and by doing so, we are confronted with how truly terrible, evil, and heartbreaking the subject matter is. It’s not just some thrilling entertainment; it’s someone life in ruins.
Fox’s non-fiction filmmaking history comes in handy in the way the story is told as well. Her character (an outstanding performance by Laura Dern) is investigating her life like she is one of her subjects. She interviews characters from the past and she is also questioning herself at that age. Characters reply directly to the camera in these interviews, which allows for a conversation about the events while we are also watching the events unfold. Framing it in this way also shows how complicated these events are from the point of view of her younger self.
In most films I have seen that tackle this subject matter, it’s from the POV of adult characters. In having older Jennifer relive and explain everything through her younger self, this movie really delves into the complexity of abuse, how children can be complicit in the lies to cover it up, what they are getting out of it that keeps them silent, etc. Jennifer feels like she has agency, and in some ways does, but doesn’t understand the grooming and manipulation that is happening to her. She thinks she is being invited to be an adult and is enjoying that adult attention.
Ultimately, this film, beyond sexual abuse, is really addressing perspective vs. truth. Perspective is one’s experience of events, and the conclusions (true or not) that one draws from those experiences. Truth is the reality as seen objectively (and for the record, I do think there is an objective reality). For a movie to say, “Hey, maybe what you told yourself about your experiences is wrong,” is kind of a big deal, from my perspective, and a good thing.
We live in a society that is becoming increasingly more flippant with the truth. Terms like “Your Truth” or “Living my truth”, etc., are giving the appearance that truth is relative. This film (and I with it) would argue that is incorrect. You have your perspective, but the truth is not something that can be customized to fit your wishes or point of view. Politicians, celebrities, journalists and others have been playing fast and loose with the truth, pushing their perspective on the masses and leaving out or changing facts to fit their narratives.
But the truth will set you free. In this film, the truth is heartbreaking, but with it comes so many realizations about the lies Jennifer has been telling herself about herself since childhood. She lacks real intimacy with her partner (and any partner she has had since childhood). She has always viewed this as modern and feminist, but as the film goes on, she realizes its a symptom of the trauma that happened to her as a girl.
She also realizes in her silence, that others were abused after her. And that truly crushing realization leads to a confrontation that is one of the films best moments. It does not wrap this story up neatly, as I am sure Jennifer is still processing these events and their impact on her in real life and on the lives of others, but it does show that with courage and honesty, one can begin to move past these deep, deep scars.
This is a beautiful film, that lands in our culture at a very timely moment. Hopefully a lot of people will see it, not to be entertained, but to be educated on the kind of darkness that is going on around us. One in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused. That is too many. After see Jennifer’s story, it’s clear that one would still be too many.