“Is ‘The Tale’ HBO’s Most Controversial Movie Ever?”
Though the headline sounds like clickbait, it’s not a spurious question, as The Tale engages with a controversial theme — childhood sexual abuse — in an extremely direct way. In fact, it opens with a disclaimer: “The following movie is based on filmmaker Jennifer Fox’s personal experience. It contains material of a sensitive nature. Viewer discretion is advised.”
Fox, who knew she wanted to be a filmmaker at 9 after seeing Funny Girl with Barbra Streisand, is primarily a documentarian. She’s made Beirut: The Last Home Movie and My Reincarnation. This film, however, is a different endeavor, as it delves into her own experience of childhood sexual abuse.
The Tale, which premiered at Sundance in January, tells the story of a fictionalized Fox, also named Jennifer, played as an adult by Laura Dern. The film opens with Dern as Jennifer in professional mode, shooting a film in India, and then returning home to the stylish warehouse space she shares with her fiance, Martin (Common).
When Jennifer gets back to the States, messages from her mother (Ellen Burstyn) await: She has found an essay Jennifer wrote when she was a young girl, and its content worries her. As it turns out, Mom has plenty of reason to be worried.
Like most people in middle age, Jennifer has a number of set stories she tells about herself, including the tale of her “first boyfriend,” who she met at 13 when she was away from home at horseback riding camp. This story has been with Jennifer for so long that she doesn’t question it — not even when her mother points out that the essay she wrote describes her being lured into a sexual relationship with an adult.
Martin, too, is horrified to learn that the “boyfriend” she’s mentioned was actually her 40-year-old running coach, Bill (Jason Ritter). “I told you he was older!” she replies angrily, not yet able to admit that what she experienced was abuse.
Yet something in the rediscovered essay spurs Jennifer to reevaluate her past. The film plays out half in the present day, with adult Jennifer struggling to understand what really happened to her, and half in the past, as the viewer sees the way young Jennifer is slowly groomed and seduced by Bill and his partner in crime, Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki).
Some scenes are played twice: first the way adult Jennifer has always remembered them and then the way they actually happened, demonstrating our capacity for self-deception. Perhaps the most striking instance of this double vision comes when we first see the young Jennifer as remembered by her adult self. The girl she envisions is an adolescent who brims with womanly confidence, with features on the verge of sexual maturity, played by an actress who resembles a young Scarlett Johansson. But as Jennifer learns more about who she really was at 13, the Johansson lookalike is replaced by young actress Isabelle Nélisse, who is a prepubescent child. This powerful switch throws the viewer, as well it should.
As Jennifer’s recollections slowly dovetail with the reality of young Jennifer’s experience, the two time periods mesh, so that there are scenes with Dern interrogating the people in the past, including her youthful self. While this could have been confusing, it is instead revelatory and suspenseful. What are the lies Jennifer has been telling herself? How will they be revealed? Will she be able to come to grips with the truth of what happened to her?
Perhaps the most controversial decision Fox made was to show physical intimacy and even intercourse between Bill and young Jennifer. (Nélisse was not involved in these scenes; an adult body double was used instead.) While they’re certainly discomfiting, these scenes are essential, as they slap us in the face with the repulsive inappropriateness of sexualizing youth. We’re a long way from Hollywood’s Lolita culture, at last.
Such scenes also successfully convey the confusion Jennifer felt: Coach Bill was loving, a friend, adored by others. Part of her trauma as an adult lies in reconciling the fact that there is pleasure in getting sought-after attention from an admired adult.
In an article she wrote for Deadline Hollywood, Fox said, “I know that people think The Tale is radical because of its taboo-breaking, complex depiction of child sexual abuse and memory, but when I put my producer hat on, that is not the only thing that makes it groundbreaking.”
The other thing that makes it stand out, Fox writes, is that she and outreach producer Simone Pero created a campaign for distribution beyond HBO, with a resource-filled website and viewing guides for discussion. She and her colleagues have partnered with organizations like RAINN, Darkness to Light, It’s on Us, Give an Hour, Joyful Heart Foundation, Planned Parenthood and others, hoping to give the film a second life as an educational screening tool to foster conversation about abuse.
Jennifer’s Judaism is only glancingly mentioned in the film, as when her father drops her off at Mrs. G’s and talks about how Jennifer’s interest in horses is unexpected, as it’s not typical of Jews. Later, Mrs. G will describe Jennifer’s family as people with money — adding “Jews.” They’re small moments, but they serve to highlight how alone Jennifer is in this world away from home.
But of course, religion is not the film’s concern. Rather, as Fox wrote, “Our goal is nothing short of changing people’s understanding of how and why abuse happens, how complex it is for all, and the function of memory to protect from trauma. We hope to help people recognize the signs in order to prevent abuse from occurring and to support those who have been through it to heal.”