Memory can be deceptive at times, and HBO film “The Tale” explorers that tricky aspect through its heroine’s painful emotional journey into her past. As she comes to realize how unreliable her memories are, she comes to see more of what she has unconsciously overlooked for many years, and the movie is alternatively sensitive and disturbing in its gradual revelation of her hidden psychological scar which turns out to be a lot more devastating than expected.
As stated at its beginning, the movie is based on the real-life story of director/writer Jennifer Fox, who is played by Laura Dern in the film. As shown from the opening scene of the movie, Fox is a documentarian who is also a college professor teaching documentary filmmaking, and she is working on her latest project when her mother Nadine (Ellen Burnstyn) suddenly calls her for a very important personal matter. Nadine recently discovered a short story which was written by her daughter many years ago, and she was quite upset because of what is implied in that short story.
Fox is rather baffled by her mother’s reaction, because, to her, the short story in question is just the innocent fictional version of her past relationship with two adults who were quite nice and generous to her. When she was 13, Fox was sent to a summer ranch camp run by “Mrs. G” (Elizabeth Debicki), and this charismatic married woman introduced Fox and other girls in her summer ranch camp to Bill Allens (Jason Ritter), a handsome divorced guy who turned out to be Mrs. G’s secret lover. As far as Fox can remember, she was free and happy under the guidance of these two adults, and she remained very close to them even after that summer was over.
Through one flashback scene, the movie shows us how much young Fox, played by Jessica Sarah Flaum at this point, enjoyed that summertime in Mrs. G’s ranch. Looking more confident than the other girls in the ranch, Fox was Mrs. G’s favorite student, and Mrs. G was willing to show many things including how to make a perfect apple pie.
However, this supposedly pleasant memory begins to crack as Fox looks closer into her past. When she meets a woman who was one of the girls in the ranch during that time, the woman remembers many things differently, and she points out to Fox that Fox was far less confident than other girls in the ranch. When she later checks old photographs along with her mother, Fox is surprised to discover that her 13-year-old self looks quite younger than she remembers, and she naturally comes to have lots of doubts on her memory.
While trying to locate Mrs. G and Allens, Fox delves further into the remains of her past, and her search for the truth is intercut with the following series of flashback scenes. Played by Isabelle Nélisse from this point, young Fox surely looks younger in her immature status, and her relationship with Mrs. G and Allens looks quite different to us as a result. It is very clear that these two adults manipulated and then exploited young Fox, and there later comes a very uncomfortable scene where Allens approaches too close to young Fox while they happen to be together alone in his house. The movie thankfully handles this unpleasant moment with considerable restraint, and I was certainly relieved to learn later that they used a body double when this scene was shot.
As reflected by the opening sentence of her short story, this inappropriate relationship has been regarded as something romantic and beautiful in Fox’s viewpoint, but then she comes to realize how she is not so different from child sexual abuse victims. Like many of them, she has been in the denial of how she was abused and exploited, and that short story of hers was her own way of surviving those traumatizing moments from her relationship with Allens and Mrs. G.
Although it sometimes feels disorienting in its unconventional storytelling approach, the movie is firmly held well together by two strong performances at its center. Dern, whose acting career is going through another peak after her Oscar-nominated supporting turn in “Wild” (2014), is terrific as a woman who gradually awakens to the disturbing aspect of her unforgettable adolescent experience, and she ably conveys to us her character’s emotional state even when she does not say much. Nélisse is believable as the other half of the movie, and she is particularly good when her character finally decides that enough is enough and then does what she should have done earlier.
The supporting performers in the movie are solid on the whole. While Elizabeth Debicki, who has been more prominent since her supporting turn in “The Great Gatsby” (2013), is effective in her increasingly unlikable role, Frances Conroy is equally good as older Mrs. G., and Jason Ritter is suitably despicable with his jolly façade. As Fox’s regretting mother, Ellen Burstyn has a small poignant moment with Dern when their characters happen to have an honest private conversation between them, and Common and late John Heard fill their respective functional roles as required.
“The Tale” is not entirely without weak aspects, and it stumbles a little during the finale, but it is still an interesting personal drama to be admired and appreciated. Yes, it is surely not easy to watch at times due to its subject, but there are several emotionally powerful moments including its very last shot, and I assure you that they will linger on your mind for a long time after the movie is over.