Review: The Tale
by Lucy Caradog
The Tale, released in January of this year by HBO, tells the true story of Jennifer Fox, a documentary filmmaker in her forties who, upon rediscovering a story she wrote as a teenager on her first “relationship” with an older man, begins to reevaluate what she up to this point thought of as a consensual affair, and wonder if she is in fact a victim of abuse. Fox spends the film going back and forth between her memories of the events and the present day, where she attempts to regain contact with the people who were such a major part of her life at thirteen.
One of the things that I found most interesting about this film was the way it portrayed different perspectives on one event. The film features conversations between Fox and various characters from the year she was thirteen, including her past self. In these scenes Fox questions these characters and their motives, but as they are nothing more than memories they fail to give her the answers she seeks, showcasing the frustration of an incomplete or unreliable narrative. In looking back, Fox is torn between her current perspective as an adult woman who understands consent and responsibility, and a prepubescent girl longing to enter adulthood and be seen as the mature woman she is so sure she is inside.
Another strong element to The Tale is the balance between hero and victim. Fox portrays her reluctance to claim the title of victim as she feels it denounces her as weak, whereas she longs to view her past and present self as a hero. In addressing this, the director draws attention to a fear that I feel is very female, that is to be perceived as weak and in need of care. This leads to Laura Dern's character showing signs of defiance when faced with words such as “victim” and “abuser”, maintaining for a portion of the film that she was able to consent to the “relationship” and that she held a certain amount of the power. Her eventual admission that she was being groomed serves to muddy the lines between victim and hero, proving that one can suffer abuse yet find the strength to confront their past and their pain, in many ways the bravest of acts.
“This story is true - as far as I know.”
Finally, a point that is not portrayed as a major focus of the film, yet which I find incredibly meaningful, the portrayal of the mother/daughter relationship. Fox is portrayed throughout the film as resenting the nuclear family, particularly what she sees as a female need for one. She shows signs if shock and confusion at her mother's willingness to stay in a marriage that she doesn't enjoy, and outwardly condones an extra-marital affair between her riding instructor and her running coach. In the present day she is the perfect image of the independent and self-sufficient woman, in no haste to marry, yet this is put into perspective when the viewer is shown her childhood willingness to become part of “a new kind of family: one based on equality and respect”. The starting point of the film is Fox being contacted by her mother about her past “relationship” and her concern over it, which Fox brushes off. As she explores her past memories, however, her relationship begins to grow stronger as they confront demons that have been present yet ignored for years, and Fox starts to finally see the world from her mother's perspective. This allows her to to accept and respect her mother's decisions and their differences, therefore making peace with the issues that debatably lead to her being more susceptible to the abuse in the first place.
The Tale serves as an acute study of grooming and peadophilia, excellently told by a gifted writer and director. The source of The Tale’s brilliance is undoubtedly it's narration, and the way it portrays memory and perspective. In using this angle, it allows the viewer to see inside the mind of the victim, therefore shedding light on an important issue.
Lucy Caradog is a feminist book-lover and freelance writer, currently studying English and American Literature at the University of East Anglia. As a co-founder of her university's Feminist Book Club, she does a lot of her writing on the Feminist Book Club blog , and on various other blogs and zines.