This story is true, as far as I know.
Jennifer Fox makes documentary films, typically interviewing and investigating other people. That changed after her mother found a story her daughter wrote at thirteen, about her first sexual relationship. The other party was a man nearing middle age, a handsome, well-regarded man in a position of trust.
At her mother's urging, Fox began interrogating her own life and memories.
The resulting dramatic film, based on a true story, depicts both her molestation and her attempts, as an adult, to reconstruct her past. It's not entirely accurate and literal, of course. Allowed the freedom of an adaptation, Fox has her investigation unfold over a brief period of time. In reality she wrestled with the story, investigated, wrote and rewrote for more than a decade.1 The audience should expect revisions. The film addresses the nature of memory and story-telling.
We see Fox, played plausibly by Laura Dern, interviewing people from her past, but we also her conversing with them as they exist in her memory. The most remarkable of these dialogues occur between fortysomething Jennifer and thirteen-year-old Jenny. Jenny presents herself as a willing participant, a girl wise and mature beyond her years. That she has not had her first period yet, that she vomits after her horrifically uncomfortable sexual encounters: these facts she buries where she will have trouble finding them. When Jennifer first tries to pick out a photo of herself from that time in her life, she picks one from two years later. She always recalled herself being older. The story she told herself insists she experienced a sexual awakening. She wasn't a victim; she had a relationship.
And that relationship was, in fact, with two adults:
Jennifer: I want to understand you.
Mrs. G: You can't.
Feeling ignored in her crowded, busy home, Jenny (brilliantly acted by the young Isabelle Nélisse) finds acceptance in Mrs. G., her riding instructor, a beautiful, married woman carrying on an affair with the charming, athletic Bill. Mrs. G. clearly knows her lover has designs on the little girl, and assists in grooming her. It seems likely Jenny isn't their first, and Jennifer learns that she wasn't their last. In fact, during the time of her "affair" with Bill, he and Mrs. G. also have a three-way relationship with a college-age girl. Iris is old enough to consent to sex-- though her employment by Mrs. G. problematizes the notion of consent. She appears adjusted as an adult, and passes off the long-ago experience by saying, "it was the 70s." Of course, Jennifer did the same, and we learn that she's not the adjusted adult she plays at being. Iris, for her part, smiles reflectively-- and then reacts with genuine shock when she learns that Bill had sex with a thirteen-year-old, and that he and Mrs. G. wanted Jenny to join them. She swears they never mentioned it to her.
But that had been around the time that Jenny stopped the relationship, and told Bill she had no interest in seeing them again.2
As 1973 Mrs. G., Elizabeth Debicki proves a cold enigma, a sculpted Nordic beauty concealing a troubled mind. She recalls, uncomfortably, Karla Homolka. Frances Conroy portrays the present-day Mrs. G. as faded and psychologically ambiguous. We never learn what she actually remembers, or whether she knows for certain why the adult Jennifer wants to interview her. Some version of a monster still lurks behind her eyes. What might have bred that beast we never learn.
Bill, however, proves an all-too-familiar type. He's coached many young people, driven across country with Lolita, and taken his place in high office, because his accusers are lying and anyway, it was a long time ago. He finds power in his affable charm, his athletic good looks. He can spot a lonely soul and convince her that he's her best friend. Then he moves on, and fails to recall exactly what happened (there have been so many), or pretends he can't recall at all, or insists that it never happened, or it never happened like that. The two actors playing Bill give the part disturbing credibility.
The sunnier versions of the story clash with the depiction of Jenny's sexual encounters with Bill. Through skillful camerawork, acting, and a body double, we see some version of what happened. We're left with no doubt about how to interpret their "relationship."
Although slow-moving in places, a bit confusing a times (but that is the nature of recollection), and frequently distressing (the real-life Jennifer Fox notes that some of the adult actors experienced on-set emotional breakdowns), The Tale being told raises important questions. We need to explore the answers.
We can all see the damage, if we know where to look.
Written and directed by Jennifer Fox
Laura Dern as Jennifer Fox
Isabelle Nélisse as Jenny at 13
Elizabeth Debicki as Mrs. G
Jason Ritter as Bill
Frances Conroy as Old Mrs. G
Ellen Burstyn as Nettie
Laura Allen as Young Nettie
Common as Martin
John Heard as William P. Allens3
Matthew Rauch as Aaron
Jaqueline Fleming as Margie
Chelsea Alden as Samantha
Isabella Amara as Franny
Tina Parker as Fran
Tarek Bishara as Detective Amato
Scott Takeda as Mr. Watada
Emily Sandifer as Student
Jessica Sarah Flaum as Jenny at 15
Gretchen Koerner as Iris
Madison David as Young Iris
Juli Erickson as Grandmother
Grant James as Old Mr. G.
1. A more significant, deliberate alteration: apart from changing their names, the nature of how she knew "Mrs. G." and "Bill," has been revised for legal and personal reasons.
While I'm discussing artistic license, here's another that struck me as odd, if perhaps trivial. I researched, in fact, to confirm what I was seeing. Jenny is thirteen in 1973, and the film goes to some lengths to depict 1973. The film's present tense necessarily takes place in the early 2000s. The film, probably for budgetary reasons, simply depicts the world at the time of shooting. We have late 20teen cars, iPhones, and cultural context. I suspect some other viewers will find the approach a bit off, if understandable.
2. We also hear from another girl, disconnected from these people though not Fox's life. She recalls her first sexual experience, as a teenager, with a peer, a close male friend. It sound about right: completely awkward, but we have no doubt both consented and, a few years later, she has little to process, regret, or overcome. The contrast feels important in this story.
3. They filmed his scene shortly before his death, making The Tale one of his final films.