HBO’s The Tale Grapples With Shifting Perspectives on Abuse and Trauma

3 minute read

In the months since the revelations about the behavior of Harvey Weinstein kicked off an international reckoning around sexual harassment and assault, much has been written about the misdeeds of men. Less has been said about the lives of the women who were violated. Maybe a crime, a discrete event, makes for an easier narrative than its wending aftermath; maybe thinking about the unhappy unspooling of years in the life of a survivor is more than Hollywood really wishes to deal with at length.

HBO’s new film The Tale, premiering on May 26 after playing at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, forces viewers to face the consequences of sexual violence. It does the same for its protagonist. When the film begins, Jennifer Fox (Laura Dern) is living a placid life as a documentarian. One day, her mother (Ellen Burstyn) contacts her about the discovery of a story Jennifer wrote as a child that suggests she was raped at 13. Jennifer is confused, vaguely remembering her time working with a track coach as a pleasant period of self-discovery. She undertakes a period of detective work in order to suss out exactly what happened to her, what memories were once vivid enough to fuel her writing but now have fallen into silent lacunae.

Jennifer Fox is a real person, the filmmaker who wrote and directed The Tale on the basis of her own experience. We see a documentarian’s rigor as Jennifer, the character, gradually amasses evidence. That someone so devoted to facts can have so misunderstood or misremembered her own life story inspires terror in Jennifer, who begins to spiral. Dern’s mastery is so complete that it makes conversation about the actor’s skill or the awards she’ll likely win seem unworthy; her performance ignites the screen with increasing tension, stuffing a lifetime’s worth of repressed trauma into a moment. Jennifer has been reflexively mistrustful, living life at arm’s length. Without knowing it, she’s been shaped by assault.

What Jennifer suffered, we eventually learn, was horrific. And not merely for the physical abuse but for the psychological grooming by both her coach (Jason Ritter) and his lover (Elizabeth Debicki, tragically complicit). The pair, with creepy solicitousness that looks like amiability to a child, are seen in flashback, gradually winning Jennifer’s trust. And we see Jennifer as a child too (played with grit and moving naiveté by Isabelle Nélisse), believing them.

The shape of Jennifer’s life only becomes clear once she digs up what had been repressed. Part of that process means forgiving the child she had been–one who assumed all adults had good intentions and approached the world with an open heart. The film suggests Jennifer finds her way back there–sadder, wiser but open to life once again. It approaches her past with eyes wide open and doesn’t blink. And it shows that the only way Jennifer’s trauma could be resolved was by, finally, talking about it.

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