If an important function of cinema is to generate empathy by placing the viewer in someone else’s shoes, the The Tale (2018) is a hugely important film. For all the #MeToo skeptics out there, people who find credibility issues in accusers’ accounts, this film offers a comprehensive and convincing story that happens to explain these issues—because most of the story’s real. (For those who ask for a higher standard of proof, I offer for your consideration the difference between O.J. Simpson’s criminal trial—which he won—and civil trial—which he lost.)
Written and directed by documentarian Jennifer Fox, the semi-autobiographical film stars Laura Dern and Isabelle Nélisse as Jennifer as she is led to see what she previously thought of as a beautiful relationship in a new, unsettling light. It’s immensely important because it finally reorients the narrative from accused to accuser, as Alison Willmore explains so well. Fox’s first foray into fiction includes innovative and effective manipulations of time and memory—the recasting of young Jennifer (first played by Jessica Sarah Flaum) leaves an indelible impression—but at other points, generic clichés are unhesitatingly employed: Richard Brody notes that the scenes are geared toward informational rather than realist purposes, something I observed as well; and though many praise Dern for her understated performance, I found it a tad too expressionistic, with her lecture scenes being particularly melodramatic. If we’re really nitpicking, Ellen Burstyn’s portrayal of Fox’s mother is nuanced and enthralling, but unconvincing as a mother pushing her daughter to resolve an issue for which she, too, feels some guilt.
On a structural and emotional level, the film’s depiction of inner conflict may be real, but its scenes of conflict between accuser and accused are simplistically cathartic. In real life, Fox says in an interview, Mrs. G (Frances Conroy and Elizabeth Debicki, both pitch perfect) met with her a number of times, and she spoke to Bill (a sociopathic Jason Ritter and an oily John Heard) a few times over the phone as well, declining ever to confront him in favor of keeping the dialogue open. Perhaps it’s too much to ask of such a raw and brutally honest film that it deal with resolution as complexly as it does with instigation.