Thirty years ago, Jennifer Fox won the grand jury prize at the 1988 Sundance Film Festival for her documentary “Beirut: The Last Home Movie,” engaging with sex-positive and progressively feminist topics in her subsequent nonfiction work, most notably “Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman.” Both a natural extension of Fox’s career to date and a complete about-face, “The Tale” marks her first narrative feature, but only because traditional documentary wouldn’t do justice to this messy, meandering investigation into her traumatic first sexual experience, for the incidents it depicts are true, “at least as far I know.”
That’s how actress Laura Dern puts it, appearing as Fox’s taller, blonder, but no less independent screen proxy. A longtime supporter of the project, Dern plays Jennifer, a fearless, 50-ish documentary filmmaker interrupted while on location by agitated voicemail messages from her mother (Ellen Burstyn), who sounds really upset after discovering a decades-old short story Jennifer wrote at age 13, detailing how her horseback riding instructor (played by Elizabeth Debicki) and running coach (Jason Ritter) allegedly conspired to deflower her.
Except that’s not at all how Jennifer remembers the “relationship,” which she kept hidden from her mother for her own reasons. In Jennifer’s memory, that first love was a thing of beauty, an elaborate secret shared between her and two very special adults. As Sundance movies go, “The Tale” is a stern rebuttal to last year’s “Call Me by Your Name,” which reveled in the way memories embellish and preserve the best part of sometimes hurtful experiences of our youth — and yet, those two contradictory perspectives on adolescent sexual awakening go a long way to show how complicated the issue can be (so complicated that Fox’s treatment feels hopelessly tangled up in its own mixed feelings).
After returning to her flat in New York, the unmarried yet sexually active Jennifer — who’s now living with a mentally supportive black man, played by Common — finally sits down to read her adolescent short story, which her mother has sent her (Fox really did write such a piece for class, receiving an “A” from what must have been a very uneasy English teacher). Instead of reading it the whole way through, she merely samples the first paragraphs, setting up a system by which Fox can parcel out brief flashbacks over the next two hours.
Such an ambitiously structured examination almost certainly wouldn’t have occurred to Fox before Charlie Kaufman went there with “Adaptation” and “Synecdoche, New York,” but unlike those films (which toy with self-reflexive questions of artistic ambition and compromise), Fox isn’t posing as her own therapist so much as a new kind of private investigator, drawing from her own documentary research skills to uncover this half-forgotten chapter of her own past — not unlike the way New York Times reporter David Carr did “the darkest story of his own life” in “The Night of the Gun.”
Although Fox’s screenwriting process clearly drew from a wealth of her old photographs, letters, and personal artifacts (many of which appear over the end credits), the unusual and frequently baffling presentation relies almost entirely on reenactment, which she playfully manipulates according to the vagaries of her own memory. Most effective, the retelling begins with one actress, Jessica Sarah Flaum, playing Jenny. Flaum looks closer in age to the teenage actresses who have played Lolita on screen over the years (Sue Lyon, Dominique Swain) than the 12-year-old character Vladimir Nabakov described in his novel. But then Burstyn shows adult Jennifer a photo of her taken that summer, at age 13, and Fox is forced to revise her memory, replaying the scenes with a younger actress, 11-year-old Isabelle Nélisse, in the role.
“The Tale” is hella meta, culminating in a scene where Dern and Nélisse sit side by side in the same room. It wouldn’t have been the slightest bit out of character for the movie to step back one degree farther to reveal Fox calling “cut” on set with her two doubles (not unlike the way docu-fiction hybrid “Casting JonBenet” conveyed its own self-awareness). That’s just one of a million opportunities missed in Fox’s overcooked, but somewhat undisciplined assembly, which maddeningly withholds details audiences have long since figured out for themselves — and which were right there in Jenny’s short story from the beginning.
Considering that the entire thing is scripted, there’s no excuse for such a sprawling approach, all but suffocating under Ariel Marx’s omnipresent score, slowed down as Dern pantomimes flipping through photo albums and hesitating to call the man who seduced her. Fox’s style isn’t realistic, so why not heighten and embrace the reconstruction further? As if channeling Sarah Polley’s relatively elegant “Stories We Tell,” Fox constructs unique opportunities for her character to enter into her own memories, as when Jennifer interrogates Mrs. G, her old riding teacher — both in-person (Frances Conroy plays her as a feeble husk of her former beauty), and in some imaginary chamber of her mind, where Mrs. G hasn’t aged a day.
Though Debicki has impressed via small roles in major movies (“The Great Gatsby,” “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”), this is her most impactful performance yet, simultaneously seductive and sinister as she sits rigidly upright, gazing out into the audience from behind her cool alabaster façade. As coach Bill, Ritter looks nothing like a track and field champ, but has a boy-next-door cuteness that effectively masks what his character is capable of. Who’s to say whether these actors — or the way their characters are written — fairly represent the real-life Bill and Mrs. G (whose names have been changed to protect not the innocent, but the filmmaker, lest she be sued for slander)? Men have excused, explained, downgraded, or denied their experiences for far too long, and it’s now Fox’s prerogative to tell her story as she sees fit, building to a confrontation with Bill in the present (now played by John Heard) that isn’t as cathartic for us as it must have been for her — but again, “The Tale” is her story, and we might just be surprised how many other women do identify.
If Fox goes too far in any respect, it’s the degree to which she insists on recreating those teenage sexual encounters, using body doubles and trick effects to cheat the otherwise convincing impression that Nélisse is being subjected to the same humiliations she endured as a child. Not since “Mysterious Skin” (another vintage Sundance title, that one artfully elevated by a director who didn’t live through the abuse himself) has a movie so squirm-inducingly “gone there,” and yet, this insistence upon not shying away from what really happened somehow complicates the larger strategy of questioning Fox’s memory of events.
Regrettably, Fox’s trauma is a tale as old as time, and yet, women are only just now finding the opportunity to tell it — or, more to the point, society is only just now starting to listen to and believe their stories. Though many cling to the opinion that the #MeToo revolution is but a passing fancy, bound to die down as soon as the media finds some other headline-driver to distract its interest, history will prove them wrong: When it comes to women holding those who’ve sexually harassed and abused them accountable, the Reckoning is just getting started, and Fox’s chosen form of cinematic memoir is but in its infancy. Conceivably, there could be as many “The Tales” told as there are “victims” — a word Fox/Jennifer/Jenny furiously reject — and now that audiences are opening their minds to these upsetting personal narratives, Fox’s film is but the first in a new genre, and the beginning of a much-needed conversation.