On one hand, it’s a shame The Tale wasn’t given a theatrical release. The subject matter is more than topical right now, and one always wants to see a great talent like Laura Dern headlining the big screen. On the other, it’s understandable why this was snapped up by HBO and turned into a TV film: what occurs here is so raw and sensitive that experiencing it in the privacy of one’s home adds to its power. You’re able to contend with these revelations on your own terms, without turning it into a public display. And, I mean, this is triggering stuff. Absolutely. You need the option to pause and take a breather, or to fast-forward scenes that are too much for you to handle. In a theatre, you’d be forced to contend with everything at once, without the opportunity to step back and return when you’re ready (unless you wanted to miss half the film in the process). Putting this on TV, therefore, is sensible, and it doesn’t take away from the film’s quality in the least.
Nor should it be handily dismissed. There’s so much hurt and confusion carved into this narrative, which is based on director Jennifer Fox’s own experiences as a girl. It depicts the process of a woman coming to terms with being sexually abused by a person she trusted, and recognizing the abuse as such, rather than as an abnormal and “complicated” consensual relationship. How does one contend with the revelation of being violated all those years later? How does one unearth the memories that were once repressed due to the psychological confusion and guilt? And how does one cope, after all you knew was really one big lie? Not all the answers are lined up neatly here, but many of them are. Filtered through the protagonist’s unreliable state of mind, the result is a story that morphs from the outside in, slowly being sculpted by the alarming truths we so desperately wish to forget—but cannot.
What also makes the film so easy to recommend is the stellar cast of women who comprise a big part of it. Dern, of course, is exceptional and heartbreaking, but there’s also Elizabeth Debicki in a hauntingly complex role, Frances Conroy as Debicki’s older self (and matching her vocal cadence and accent perfectly), Isabelle Nélisse as Dern’s younger iteration, and Ellen Burstyn as her guilt-ridden mother. The main male role is filled by Jason Ritter, who plays against type superbly as a sunny athletic coach who hides paedophilic desires. Is it a compliment to say that Ritter is superbly cast? He has such a naturally warm and trusting smile that you’d never expect would come from a deeply disturbed and disgusting individual, so kudos to the casting director for bringing him in. Half the battle is finding the right actors to do a story like this justice, and they all did.
Though my intention is not to speak for what abuse survivors would want to see in a film like this, I do think they would at least find this an important and necessary narrative to advance. Many will see themselves in Jennifer Fox, and they will be grateful to know that they have another ally by their side. They may even applaud the way unstable and repressed memories are depicted here, as being close to their own personal experiences. At the end of the day, I hope that The Tale helps a lot of the people who watch it: to heal, to grieve, to seek justice, to vent their fury. I hope that it incites more action on all sides, and gives rise to greater reckoning. Enough exists here for it to happen.