Memory can not be trusted in “The Tale.” What we see as initial truths bubbling around in the head of Jennifer Fox (Laura Dern) often reveal themselves as hazy recollections masking harrowing events. While Jennifer is certain she has been sexually abused, she believes her journey in “The Tale” is a discovery of how the abuse happened, not so much why.
It’s a captivating story from the real-life Jennifer, who directed the film and based it on her own life story. Dern’s Fox receives a story she wrote during childhood from her mom Nettie (Ellen Burstyn). The story revolves around Fox and her surrogate parents Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki) and Bill (Jason Ritter). Mrs. G was teaching Jennifer the art of Equestrian horse riding, while Bill was developing her into a track athlete. But Bill manipulated Jennifer’s shy persona and lack of familial attention into an illegal, sexual relationship.
The details come in spurts throughout “The Tale,” each revelation of Jennifer’s memory accompanied by an unspoken explanation of why she is the way she is today. We see Bill constantly tell Jennifer that monogamy is futile, that nuclear families are bombs to the spirit, ideas she’s still proudly supports decades later. When Jennifer does meet with other individuals who trotted around that time in her life, we feel a sense of betrayal lurking behind Dern’s smile, that she feels guilty implicating her abusers after all these years.
It’s a powerful story well-serving of its title “viewer discretion is advised” disclaimer. Dern gives her standard powerhouse performance, and Burstyn is riveting as Jennifer’s no-nonsense mother. But Debicki and Ritter steal the show as Mrs. G and Bill, masterfully capturing the tortured and criminal psyche of two charismatic people who could have anything or anyone they want, but their hearts are torn by malicious attractions.