In The Tale, the semi-autobiographical narrative debut from Jennifer Fox, the character Jennifer’s process of sifting through and revisiting past memories is one of writing and rewriting, and that’s baked into the film’s grammar.
Sexual predators rarely identify themselves to the world by twirling a mustache or wearing a black hat. Most of them are people that the victim knows, respects, and trusts, which is what makes their betrayal so much easier to commit and harder to spot. Jennifer (Laura Dern), now well into her forties, has spent her life persuading herself that she wasn’t the victim of sexual abuse, repainting her history as one of precocious sexual awakening. At 13, she decided this was the tale she wanted for herself, so she penned it that way, ignoring her teacher’s comments that accompanied the A on her writing assignment: there was concern she’d been “taken advantage of by older people”.
When Jennifer Fox’s The Tale opens, Jennifer is a documentary filmmaker shooting in India, a professional storyteller with a camera. At the beginning of the film, her mother (Ellen Burstyn) sends her the pages from the short story Jennifer wrote in her youth. Her mother is alarmed, concerned that the story is true and an account of abuse. Unable to even entertain that notion, Jennifer becomes immediately defensive, insisting her mother simply doesn’t understand, and asking her to stay out of it. Jennifer’s overreaction is telling: some part of her knows her mother has a point.