Film Review: The Tale

Laura Dern and Isabelle Nélisse/HBO

Laura Dern and Isabelle Nélisse/HBO

Patriarchy still plagues communities around the world with some nations like the U.S. and U.K. – which are regarded as advanced – we assume that this is not the case since women are now being heard and topics such as equal pay disparity are being acted upon and an increasing number of women positioned at the helm of projects and companies in various industries. Inevitably, this breeds uncomfortable circumstances for women across the world forcing some to refrain from seeking help in fear of being losing their jobs if they stated they had been sexually harassed by a company executive or shunned by their family if they expose a member of raping them. However, the ever-growing number of women coming forward and, courageously, telling their stories of workplace abuse and harassment and studies reporting the true state of women in leading positions highlights the hyperbolic depiction of what has been to tackle this issue. As we witness the current polarising shift in society, regarding, the #MeToo movement which has become a global community providing therapy and catharsis for those who have been abused and shunned it is important to receive and digest such pieces of art with the utmost sincerity and attention to allow us to better understand such stories.

Although, the release of this film seems fitting to the current social landscape the feature has been in the works for several years. Documentarian Jennifer Fox (Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman and An American Love Story) delves deep to re-examine and fully understand her first sexual encounter. Fox’s mother finds a story she had written when she was 13 about her incident during the summer of 1973. She attempted to tell her story within that year by handing in a fictional version for English class for which she received an ‘A’. To some regard this cine-memoir serves as a form of long-needed catharsis for Fox and Laura Dern powerfully depicts Fox’s journey of self-reflection and understanding.

Even though, this is Fox’s narrative feature debut she does not hold back. Given her career as a documentarian she incorporates elements of the genre into the film having her 13-year-old self, played by Isabelle Nélisse, talk to Dern in what would be regarded as a form of therapy, with the former accepting what has happened whilst the latter attempts to self-evaluate her thought process back then. This genre-bending film-making allows for a powerful dynamic to shine between Nélisse and Dern; although this form of storytelling may be unorthodox by the end of the film them sitting side by side in a conference hall hotel feels, completely, natural.

Various themes of post-rape and sexual abuse are examined in film but for me (real life) Fox’s depiction of the impact on the abused mental state intrigued me the most. A common occurrence in sexual abuse stories is the shattering of the victim’s state of mind leaving them unable to understand that they did nothing wrong and repressing their rightful anger and frustrations allowing devastating decisions to be made such as suicide and/or drug abuse. During a lecture on film-making Fox tells her students, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” this come after she had been re-reading the story and searching through her mother’s photo albums to track down the whereabouts of her mentor and her abuser ‘Bill’, who she named in her story instead of using his real name. The line perfectly encapsulates (real life) Fox’s reasoning for her fictional retelling of her sexual intercourse with her mentor because in an interview with Mic Fox stated, “one of the things that I understood about my psychology, and I can’t really explain why because everybody’s different, but for me, as a kid, to be a victim would’ve killed me faster than the abuse itself.

Another distressing moment that embodies the mental state of an abused victim is when Fox and her partner Martin, played by Common, engage in an argument about her incident after he finds her story amongst a host of pictures and files of the people she spent her summer with in 1973. He insists she was raped since her mentor was in his 40s and Fox was 13 and that she is a victim hoping she understands but Fox refutes him saying, “I am not a victim. I don’t need you or anybody to call me a victim,” the interaction finishes with him being forced to leave for his flight. This engagement highlights the disturbing affects self-victimisation has on the abused, they tell themselves it was ok since they didn’t say ‘no’ or ‘stop’ or they felt an emotional connection but who are we to tell them what they went through? Luckily, Fox – now much older – acknowledges she was raped and we witness her set out to find Bill to, finally, confront him for exploiting her childhood innocence.

The beauty of The Tale is its ability to address acceptance, self-victimisation and understanding of abuse in an authentic manner that subtracts theatrics in favour of emotional storytelling that fluidly works to towards the goal set out in the beginning.

If you know anyone who has been or is currently a victim of any form of sexual abuse here are some helplines:

Rape Crisis (UK & Wales): 0808 802 9999 -

RAINN: Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (US): 800 656 4673 -