A documentarian looks back at her own childhood and uncovers startling truths.

The Tale review This dark film on child sexual abuse is a must-watchScreenshot/Hotstar
Flix Hotstar Tuesday, June 05, 2018 - 18:29

HBO’s latest offering The Tale starts with an intriguing disclaimer: “The story you’re about to see is true. As far as I know it.”

The Tale takes a close look at director Jennifer Fox’s own life as she navigates through the memories of her childhood to uncover something dark and disturbing. The thing about childhood memories are that they are never completely our own , they are hand-me-downs from people around us, and trying to recollect these memories can be like looking through a kaleidoscope. Colourful and constantly changing, creating a new pattern, a new story, every single time. And sometimes what you discover is not pleasant.

Laura Dern plays Jennifer Fox, a 48-year-old documentarian whose life is suddenly and irrevocably turned upside down when she receives a call from her mother who discovers some stories Jennifer had written as a 13-year-old. These letters reveal that young Jennifer (played by a very impressive Isabelle Nélisse) was used as a pawn as part of some perverse sexual fantasy of her track coach Bill (Jason Ritter) and married equestrian instructor Mrs. G ( Elizabeth Debicki).

Jennifer refuses to accept that she was sexually abused in the beginning, even after her mother shows her the stories. “It is just a story, Mom,” she says. She truly believes that it was a consensual relationship that she was in. In her mind, she was old enough to make decisions about relationships.

In the story she had concocted for herself, she even looked older when the abuse happened. She refuses to believe that she was a victim. Realisation strikes her when her mother shows her a picture of how she looked when she was 13.

Thus begins Jennifer’s journey into her past and it takes her down a rabbit hole of despair. The result is a self exploration of sexual abuse, guided solely by the memories of an adolescent girl and a mature person who is in denial. The entire story is constructed in a very interesting way, where the older and younger versions of Jennifer meet up across time to make sense of the way things had happened.

The younger Jennifer is constantly at loggerheads with her older self; the more her older self uncovers, the more uncomfortable her 13-year-old self gets. Over the course of the film, we see the disturbing and horrifying truth of child sexual abuse. The director has chosen to show scenes of Bill raping a young Jennifer (a disclaimer informs us that an adult body double was used for these scenes).

But, this creates some very intense and dark moments which make us sit up and take notice. The scene doesn’t fade to black, it is not left to the viewers' imagination. As viewers, we are forced to confront the truth, it is not pretty, it is not romantic, it is ugly and one needs to understand that.

In the last scene of The Tale, we see Laura Dern and Isabelle Nélisse sitting next to each other and trying to make sense of the horrific ordeal she had been through and why she had chosen to create these myths about her life. Those questions are not answered. It leaves us with a void, a sense of loss.

But what this film bravely and effectively does is that it helps start a conversation which is sorely needed. Talking about child sexual abuse is never easy. It is one of those things that often get shoved under the carpet, the victims often bury these memories deep within the recesses of their mind.

In a country where a child is sexually abused every 15 minutes, according to the latest government figures, one needs to not only talk but act against abusers and create an environment where children can feel safe and open up about these issues. Because as human beings we effectively try to shut out and forget painful memories and create false narratives that are easier to deal with.

Like Joan Didion famously wrote in her 1979 book of essays, White Album, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live." The story of Jennifer is that of many a victim but it is only now in the times of #metoo and #timesup that women are getting an opportunity to tell these stories and be taken seriously.

The Tale is an important film; it is an act of courage. It is disturbing and definitely not an easy watch but it is an extraordinary story which deserves to be heard.

Note: The Tale is now streaming on Hotstar.

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