The Tale (2018)
A woman filming a documentary on childhood rape victims starts to question the nature of her childhood relationship with her riding instructor and running coach.
- Based on real-life director Jennifer Fox, this film begins by introducing us to accomplished documentary filmmaker Jennifer "Jenny" Fox (Laura Dern) herself, a woman in her late forties who is currently working on a film project recording women and girls in third-world countries who have been sexually assaulted or harassed. During a protest for women's rights in Africa, Jennifer joins in despite being warned that these things can turn violent quickly. She's also a university professor living in a condo loft in an interracial relationship with her loving boyfriend, Martin (Lonnie "Common" Lynn). Jennifer has had relationship problems with Martin involving commitment and sexuality, adding tension to her life.
One day Jennifer's elderly mother, Nettie (Ellen Burstyn) calls her up, distraught after coming across a school essay from the 1970's Jennifer wrote when she was thirteen. The essay is about a "relationship" Jennifer had when she was thirteen which she dismisses as upsetting her mother because her boyfriend was "older". Jennifer has a flashback to this era, which is portrayed as deeply nostalgic and a sweet romance in which she was able to find herself as a confident young woman. She pictures the 1970's almost like a bright super 8 home movie and seems to find it much more endearing than her own adult life. She imagines herself as being older and sophisticated as she re-reads the essay herself, but is surprised at how small and childlike she appears in photos from that time. Rethinking back on that time, she is now portrayed as a shy and awkward little girl whose parents often argue and ignore her. Jennifer's relationship began one summer when she went to a mysterious and intensive horse training camp with three other girls. She lived with the beautiful and enigmatic Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debiki), who also had Jenny and the girls run with professional coach Bill Allens (Jason Ritter), who was in his forties. Bill often treats the girls as a small elite group, getting them to refer to him by the unexplained nickname "Naga", which Jennifer finds cult-like looking back on it. She decides to get in touch with one of the other girls from the camp, an obese teenager named Franny (Tina Parker), who is now an adult woman running her own horse farm. Franny surprisingly has remained very close with the now frail and horribly aged Mrs. G, who reveals that her real husband (Grant James) is suffering from bouts of illness and that her bespectacled young son whom Jennifer was fond of, David (Brett Justin Koppel) passed away at a young age. Jennifer means to ask Mrs. G. about her childhood but is unable to bring herself to do it considering the tragic circumstances which have been brought up. Mrs. G. meanwhile makes a few bizarre comments about her own family, including that her mother "preferred the dogs to her". It is revealed that as a child in Britain, Mrs. G. may have been neglected and sexually abused.
Jennifer goes with Mrs. G. and Franny to try riding again, and has flashbacks to an embarrassing time in which she fell off her own horse. Not long after though, she has a live show and displays her riding skills, getting closer to Bill in the process, whom she now considers a dear friend. Mrs. G. and Bill offer to drive her to a diner for lunch, playing Gordon Lightfoot music and chatting about Jennifer's own lonely and dysfunctional home life. As they eat, Mrs. G and Bill reveal to Jennifer that they are lovers. Jennifer reassures them that she's glad they're happy, and agrees to write letters to them after the summer when she returns home for school. After the camp, Jennifer keeps her horse with Mrs. G. and continues to see her and Bill on the weekends. These memories begin to haunt the present-day adult Jennifer. Doing a demonstration while teaching a class, she gets one of her students, Joe (Daniel Berson) to volunteer to stand in front of the class, and she discusses how a person's defensive body language is often a sign that they're trying to hide something more serious about themselves.
Jennifer reflects on how after the summer when she was thirteen, the visits transitioned into her spending time with Bill alone. One night she stays over at his house and gets cold, so he wraps a blanket around her before reading her a poem of his. He begins sexually grooming her, requesting that she take her top off for him so he can ogle her, eventually raping her repeatedly, telling her that they are "making love". This makes her uncomfortable, but at the same time it becomes an act of rebellion. Her parents still ignore her yet refuse to let her date or make friends, barring her from going to a carnival with a friend named Lucas (Noah Lomax). Ironically her father claims to be friends with Lucas's father and to like the boy's family, yet Jennifer's parents see nothing suspicious about how much time she spends with Bill and Mrs. G. Jennifer realizes that her nosy grandmother (Juli Erickson) is aware of the "relationship", but the two never discuss it.
When Martin in the present day finds letters written to Jennifer by Bill, he says that she was raped, but she refuses to see it that way, proclaiming that she is not a victim. However she slowly begins to question whether her recollections are accurate and eventually realizes despite her protests she had been exhibiting symptoms of being sexually abused for years. In flashbacks she is shown vomiting at the thought of sex, worrying her English teacher after turning in the essay (which discusses the molestation) and talking as if she is a mature adult in spite of her young age, isolating herself. As Jennifer continues to investigate her childhood summer, she realizes that Bill and Mrs. G. were probably grooming other girls. She remembers a college student named Iris Rose (Madison David) who worked for Mrs. G. Jennifer tracks the now adult Iris Rose down who tells her that she, Mrs. G. and Bill had threesomes and orgies and that Mrs. G. was actively involved in finding women for Bill. This prompts Jennifer to remember that she was supposed to participate in group sex with Mrs. G, Bill and Iris one weekend. However Jennifer, who vomited each time she was raped by Bill, had a severe panic attack at home and barfed the day before she was due to go away for the weekend, causing her mother to keep her at home, assuming she just had the flu. Realizing she no longer wanted to be in a relationship with Bill, Jennifer called him and broke up with him, even as he pleaded with her to stay. She also informed Mrs. G. she would no longer be keeping her horse with her.
In the present day Jennifer tracks down Mrs. G. at her own home, trying to get her to talk about the sexual abuse. Mrs. G. realizes that Jennifer is researching it, and wanting to sweep it under the carpet, she pretends to have no idea what Jennifer is talking about, trying to make her leave. The elderly Mr. G., whom had never abused Jennifer nor been aware of his own wife's affair with Bill, comes downstairs to greet and hug Jennifer, but as they embrace, Mrs. G. insists that she leave, looking worried that the secrets of the past will be revealed. Jennifer has a conversation with her childhood self, telling her about the toll the abuse will take on her as she gets older, claiming that she'll never be able to have an intimate relationship without being reminded of the abuse and that she'll never want to be pregnant. The childhood Jennifer, too busy wandering the school hallways swooning over a barrage of letters Bill has sent to her, claims she "doesn't love boys and hates children anyway". She continues to insist that she's not a victim, but freaks out when the adult Jennifer tells her that she's going to speak out about the abuse, begging her not to tell.
Now as an adult, Jennifer wants to confront Bill to ask him why he sexually abused her and if there were other victims. Martin worries for her that this plan will backfire or that she may only further traumatize herself, however he understands that this process is cathartic and necessary for her recovery, adamantly telling her that he still loves her and offering to wait outside for her as she visits an awards ceremony to confront Bill at last. At the awards ceremony where an elderly Bill (John Heard) is being honored, a furious Jennifer confronts him in front of his wife and the other attendees. Bill denies everything and leaves, however a couple of other women in the room stare at Jennifer with looks of sympathy, implying that they know all too well what she is talking about. Jennifer has a panic attack, shouting, "What? Hasn't anyone else been *coached* by Bill!?" and runs to the women's bathroom to cry, and imagines sitting with her thirteen-year-old self, who proclaims that she is not a victim, but a hero. The two look at each other silently with mutual understanding, coming to the realization that it wasn't Jennifer's fault.