In her book The Red Parts, which covers the murder trial of her aunt, the critic and poet Maggie Nelson writes about how her mother once sent her a notecard featuring the famed Joan Didion quote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Nelson pinned the card to a wall, but she soon came to regard its message as menacing, even oppressive. “I became a poet in part because I didn’t want to tell stories,” she writes. “As far as I could tell, stories may enable us to live, but they also trap us, bring us spectacular pain. In their scramble to makes sense of nonsensical things, they distort, codify, blame, aggrandize, omit, betray, mythologize, you name it. This has always struck me as a cause for lament, not celebration.”
I was thinking about Nelson’s words recently as I watched The Tale, a new film on HBO, in which the main character Jenny (Laura Dern) utters Didion’s quote out loud early on. She is speaking to a room full of eager students, a professor of documentary film and an accomplished documentarian in her own right. She is also the on-screen avatar of the film’s director, Jennifer Fox, who made The Tale as a way to explore her own true narrative of childhood sexual abuse inside a taut fictional diorama.
There are many reasons that Fox chose to make a scripted film as opposed to a documentary about her own life, but the main one is clear from the outset: She is working with extremely sensitive material. The fictional translation allows Fox to control her very delicate story, but also to explore the gaps within it; she never attempts to fill the lacunae where things stop making sense with evidence or justification. Instead, The Tale lets moments hang, empty and nauseating, and allows characters to meet across time and cross-examine one another.
Because here is what happened: When she was 13, Jenny was sexually abused. Her running coach Bill (Jason Ritter), whom she met when she attended a summer horseback riding camp, and who was almost 40 at the time, pushed her into intercourse on several occasions, often during isolated “sleepovers” at his home. Bill did not act alone; he was involved in an affair at the same time with Jenny’s glamorous, married equestrian instructor Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki), and Jenny remembers that the pair conspired to bring her into the sexual fold, often taking her out for dinner and wooing her almost as if she was a willing entrant into a threesome and not a child swept up in an abhorrent game between malevolent adults. And she was, to be clear, a child. This is important to establish, and Fox does so in a striking way early on. At first, when an adult Jenny thinks back on the abuse, she imagines herself at 13 and pictures a tall, willowy young woman, with sharp cheekbones. Through the vaseline lens of Jenny’s hazy memory, we see an older actress, Jessica Sarah Flaum, beaming at Bill and Mrs. G with moony adoration as she rides her filly around a ring.
It is only after Jenny’s mother (Ellen Burstyn) shows her a picture of herself at thirteen that a sinkhole opens inside her manicured retelling. The real 13-year-old Jenny is so tiny, barely clearing four feet tall, with chipmunk cheeks and a snaggle tooth. The actress who plays the youngest iteration of Jenny, Isabelle Nélisse, is really the star of the film, as she does such an amazing job of transmitting wide-eyed naiveté while also shouldering the most painful and disturbing storyline on screen. We never forget that this Jenny, the one who was raped and taken advantage of, was so young, so vulnerable, so helpless.
It is rare that on-screen stories of child abuse cast actual children in the roles—The Diary of A Teenage Girl, for example, cast a then-22 year-old Bel Powley to play fifteen—and so Fox’s decision to use Nélisse is incredibly bold, and oftentimes difficult to watch. Fox made sure that Nélisse herself, who was only 11 when the film was shot, wasn’t traumatized by playing the role, and implemented an intricate system that withheld the disturbing context of the sex scenes from the young actress. Ritter shot his side of the scenes with a body double, while Nélisse was kept away from even listening to what was happening on set. When it was her turn to shoot, Fox would give her gentle prompts, like to think about a bee sting or a scary dog. Fox kept an on-set psychologist on call, and took great pains to ensure that Nélisse felt comfortable and secure. Maintaining this high-level of protection cannot have been easy on the production team, but The Tale would not work without the presence of an actual child, because the entire film revolves around Jenny’s realization that she has denied this child any presence in her life story until she can no longer outrun the truth.
All journeys into the self require a catalyst, and The Tale begins with a school assignment that resurfaces after decades and that Jenny’s mother uncovers while doing some de-cluttering. In a “fictional” essay for a middle-school class, Jenny wrote about being the sexual pawn of two adults in her life, a story that raises her mother’s hackles and leads her to leave several pleading messages on Jenny’s cell phone begging to discuss what might have happened in her youth. Burstyn infuses a great deal of complexity into her maternal worry. On the one hand, she’s full of bluster and accusation; on the other, she feels partially responsible, having allowed Jenny to spend so much time with grown strangers whom she considered suitable mentors for her precocious daughter.
At first, Dern plays blasé about the concern. It’s just a story, Mom, she insists. She keeps her partner in the dark about the inquiry, choosing instead to live with the reassuring, unbroken line she feeds to herself about her experiences: that she was not a victim, that the relationship with Bill was consensual, that she was old enough to know exactly what she was getting into, and, perhaps the most pernicious, that her experience somehow made her special, that she had been plucked from the crowd to be initiated into maturity by two stylish, elegant people who saw something remarkable in her. Jenny threw up a smokescreen around the truth and then chose to live with this more palatable story, a story that allowed her to sleep, to thrive in her career, to travel around the world interviewing those far less fortunate, spinning their worlds into narrative thread.
But, when she charges into her college course citing Didion, it is clear that for Jenny, the center will not hold. As Nelson warns, the story Jenny has been telling herself is an act of omission and betrayal, of the child we see in Nélisse. So when she starts to investigate her own past with the same intensity that she brings to her documentary work, it is not only the facts that begin to unravel: Jenny begins to spin loose, to lose track of reality, to disassociate even when she is in the same room as her abusers. There is an astonishing scene in which Jenny confronts the now elderly Mrs. G (the always fierce Frances Conroy) and attempts to batter the old woman into admitting guilt; she realizes that she is never going to get the confession she needs, the closure she deserves. We then zoom backwards to confront the young Mrs. G, a feline Elizabeth Debicki smoking cigarettes on a fading avocado green couch surrounded by horse memorabilia. “I just want to know you,” Dern pleads, in a voiceover. Debicki stares straight into the camera. “You can’t,” she replies, and her eyes flit away. The opacity resumes.
The Tale excels in these absurdist meta-moments, such as the scenes in which Dern and Nélisse meet up across time to deconstruct events as they happen. As we watch Nélisse preening in a bathroom mirror at Bill’s house, Dern questions her willingness to stay after Mrs. G offers to leave her there alone. “Why would you do that?” she grills her younger self. “It’s my life, I can make my own decisions,” a defiant Nélisse says into her own reflection. “But that’s not what you wrote, you wrote that you don’t want to be here,” Dern says, reminding Nélisse of the notebook she carries in which she keeps claiming that the sexual encounters terrify and disgust her, and that she vomits after Bill touches her. In this moment, Jenny isn’t arguing with a willful child, but with a construct she has built over decades of repression, with the part of herself that needs to believe that she was complicit in her own nightmare in order to keep moving ahead. But this sublimation cannot sustain itself, and ultimately, The Tale demolishes Jenny’s myths about herself, and with them, her life goes tumbling. And what is left is anger, heartache, and rage.
In the last shot of The Tale, we see Dern and Nélisse sitting side by side on a bathroom floor, trying to make sense of the chasm between them. Neither of them is to blame for the unfillable space but they are trying to communicate across the divide in some attempt to make sense of it. Where Fox leaves us is with the idea that perhaps some evil deeds will never make sense to those harmed; that in order to live, we need not coherent stories that explain the anguish away, but an acknowledgement that sometimes, people are mangled when they did nothing to deserve it. In telling her story the way she does, Fox has done something unprecedented; she taps directly into the horror of abuse and leaves us with bloody, exposed guts rather than a storybook ending. She never claims to be healed. She was strong enough to make a film. Perhaps the bravest thing she could do is not give the viewer any idea whether this film grew out of a broken or resilient place. That’s one story she refuses to tell.