We end this week’s look at Emmy nominees that you might have missed with HBO’s “The Tale,” starring Laura Dern as real-life documentary filmmaker Jennifer Fox, who recovers a traumatic childhood memory, shard by jagged shard. “The Tale,” streaming on HBOGo, is impossible to watch, impossible not to, and if that seems like contradictory viewing counsel, then take it in the spirit intended. “The Tale” is about pedophilia, and graphic scenes of abuse arrive midfilm with the dull thud of horror and revulsion they are meant to provoke. (An adult double was used in place of the child, but that hardly mitigates the impact.)
“The Tale” launched in the late spring to little fanfare and few reviews. I, for example, overlooked this. HBO didn’t seem to know how to promote the film, which is perfectly understandable because there really is no way. Showtime had the same challenge with “Patrick Melrose,” also about childhood sexual abuse. Nevertheless, both are important, arriving during a time of charges of child abuse by Catholic priests and the extended #MeToo moment that has ripped open, in some instances, decades-old wounds. “The Tale” is a memory play, in which a lead character, Dern’s Fox, attempts to reconstruct a largely buried past. In such plays, the narrator can be unreliable, as he or she navigates past emotional scar tissue. “The story you are about to see is true,” she says at the outset. “As far as I know.”
The limits of knowledge are determined by a self-preservation instinct, as an adult Fox literally negotiates with a 13-year-old Fox (Isabelle Nélisse) over what to reveal to herself and how to interpret it. The film ends with both sitting side by side in a bathroom stall — morose, broken, depleted. Still, they are finally in agreement. A healing process can begin.
As far as we know, everything in “The Tale” is true (names have been changed to protect the guilty and innocent). It begins with Dern’s Fox receiving a call from her mother, Nettie (Ellen Burstyn). She has found an old letter trove of Jenny’s. One letter begins, “I’d like to begin this story by telling you something so beautiful ...” Nettie interprets the letter — the “tale” of the title — as a revelation of childhood sexual abuse because her daughter wrote it when she was 13. The adult Jenny barely remembers the letter.
In flashback, Jenny has been accepted to a summer horse camp run by one “Mrs. G” (Elizabeth Debicki), a divorcee who is both imperious and remote. She is close friends with Bill (Jason Ritter), a track coach who helps train the girls. In time, Mrs. G and Bill take a morbid interest in Jenny, a reserved child who struggles with esteem and identity issues. The adult Jenny struggles to understand what happened next. She has a falling out with her fiance, Martin (Common), who demands that she see the incident for what it was — rape. Jenny isn’t quite ready to make that leap.
As she investigates her past, Jenny gets closer to a truth she couldn’t bear to acknowledge. With the complicity of Mrs. G, Bill methodically seduced her. Jenny seeks out the older Mrs. G (Frances Conroy), while in her mind, she challenges the Mrs. G she remembers: “I was waiting for you to save me. Why didn’t you?” Mrs. G: “Nobody saved me.”
Jenny’s reluctance to stare down the horror gives “The Tale” an ineluctable psychological power. “Funny how you live with people in your mind, inside of you they’re always the same, and you live happily never wanting to change anything.”
“The fear,” she wrote, “is the fear of a broken dream.”
Jenny, who also teaches a college journalism class, says to her students: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live. So what’s your story? What story are you going to tell?”
Begin — “The Tale” demands — with the true one.