Speak, Memory: The Haunting Memoir of ‘The Tale’

Posted May 25, 2018 4:57 p.m. EDT

Teen girl sexuality is often packaged as a dangerous, irresistible elixir wielded by wiser-than-they-seem temptresses in bikinis, lustily grooming themselves poolside. Coquettish. Precocious. It’s a putrid myth we’re taught about ourselves, that if in teenhood a man finds himself hopelessly attracted to us, the kernel of essential badness and transgression comes from us, not from him.

I’m so used to seeing — reading, hearing, knowing — that girlishness through hypnotized male eyes that I didn’t even blink at the early flashbacks of “The Tale,” as we see adult Jennifer (Laura Dern) remember being a 15-year-old Jenny (Jessica Sarah Flaum), taking horseback-riding lessons and basking in the attention of the seemingly fascinating teacher Mrs. G. (Elizabeth Debicki) and a local running coach, Bill (Jason Ritter).

But then the flashback cuts. No, says her mother (Ellen Burstyn). You were younger than that. She hands adult Jennifer a photo album. “That was 13,” she says, tapping a photo.

And so here’s that flashback again, the same moments, the same dialogue, only Jenny’s younger now (Isabelle Nélisse), much younger — well, maybe not much younger, but important younger. Young. A child.

“The Tale,” debuting Saturday on HBO, is based on the real life of Jennifer Fox, the film’s writer and director. The title comes from a story she wrote at 13, sections of which are read verbatim in the film. The closing credits mention that identifying details have been changed, and they also mention that adult body doubles were used for the scenes that depict “sexuality with a minor.”

Those are the essential, horrible aspects of “The Tale.” It’s a true story about child rape, though that story is recalled hazily and sometimes not at all, lost to trauma and also just to time. Its distinctive structural style, with narration that weaves in and out of flashback, is intriguing, and strong performances, especially from Debicki and Nélisse, bolster moments of overly pat dialogue. This is a good movie, but part of me wishes I hadn’t seen it.

Adult Jennifer is a documentary filmmaker and professor, wrapped up in her day-to-day work when a worried phone call from her mother disrupts everything: She has found a disturbing story that Jennifer wrote at 13 and wants to talk about it. Jennifer tells her fiancé (Common) that sure, she’d had a “relationship” with an older guy when she was a teenager, but it wasn’t a big deal. And hey: It was the ‘70s.

The movie cuts between present-day Jennifer and childhood Jennifer, and the two are often in literal conversation, with young Jenny staring into the camera or into the mirror and talking directly to her adult self. “I’m not the victim of this story; I’m the hero,” she says, defiantly.

Adult Jennifer is excavating photos, journals and cards, talking to the other women who also took riding lessons, meeting the once-glamorous Mrs. G who is now an old drunk (Frances Conroy). She is vacant and dismissive, unwilling to discuss how she groomed Jenny for abuse and pushed her toward Bill.

Child Jenny is riding horses, running, going out to special dinners with Mrs. G and Bill and then spending lots of one-on-one time with Bill as his predation escalates. It starts as uncomfortable to watch and becomes so disturbing I resent my editor for asking me to review this.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” adult Jennifer tells her rapt students at one point. It’s not a particularly novel observation, but it’s one that drives the entire film, the idea of memoir in the first place. The story Jennifer has told herself is a story she likes, or at least one she’s used to — replacing it with a story that’s so much sadder and harder and lonelier is a painful, strange endeavor, and one whose only virtue is that it’s truer.

Is that enough of a reason? “The Tale” doesn’t always seem sure, but how could anyone be?

The most interesting, complicating aspects of the story come from Fox’s almost dreamy, malleable flashbacks. First we see Jenny’s memory of a day when it was snowing, and around Christmas. No, actually, it was fall, and there was no snow. But the longer and more often you misremember something, the truer it becomes. Misremembering a bad thing as less bad might liberate a survivor, but it also might exculpate a perpetrator.

So the responsibility for that memory becomes a collective one. The rapist will deny it, and it’s too burdensome and unwieldy to insist a survivor be its sole guardian. “The Tale” is a push, then, to disseminate a hard truth — and by extension an argument for confronting the reality of abuse and abusers, no matter how painful that process might be. And it’s effective. Frighteningly, unforgettably so.