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'The Tale' Review: A 'Creative Exercise' In Unravelling Sexual Abuse Victim's Denial


A new made-for-TV movie takes on some of the themes of this Me Too moment. Filmmaker Jennifer Fox was in her 40s when she realized that her first sexual experience was not the beautiful relationship she'd remembered. She'd turned that journey of self discovery into a scripted film called "The Tale." It debuts on HBO tonight. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says it is a compelling story that examines the power of denial and the stories we tell ourselves to survive.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Laura Dern plays Jennifer, a tough New York-based documentarian and unafraid to jump into dicey situations to film footage for her work. But it's a call from her mother, played by Ellen Burstyn, that has her hiding. Her mom found an essay she wrote when she was 13.


LAURA DERN: (As Jennifer) Yeah, hey.

ELLEN BURSTYN: (As Nettie) I got so worried about you. Did you read it yet?

DERN: (As Jennifer) No, where'd you find it?

BURSTYN: (As Nettie) It was a box in the storage room. What does it matter where I found it? What matters is what it says. What happened?

DEGGANS: What happened is that teenage Jennifer wrote about her close relationship with the woman teaching her to ride horses, known as Mrs. G and her running coach named Bill. Everyone else in Jennifer's adult life could see that she was abused by the couple. But Jennifer insists on remembering it as a love story causing a serious argument with her fiance, played by Common.


DERN: (As Jennifer) I'm just saying it was complicated.

COMMON: (As Martin) You talked about the relationship, but this is a grown man.

DERN: (As Jennifer) He was my coach.

COMMON: (As Martin) But what does that have to do with it? He was 40 years old. He was my age taking advantage of a child.

DERN: (As Jennifer) Babe, I am not a victim. I don't need you or anybody to call me a victim.

DEGGANS: HBO's film is a creative, slow-moving exercise in peeling away Jennifer's denial. It's an intimate look at all the ways, big and small, that she lied to herself about what happened to avoid the pain of feeling like a victim. When she rereads her essay, Jennifer imagines herself as older that age 15 or 16.


ISABELLE NELISSE: (As Jenny) I'd like to begin this story by telling tell you something so beautiful.

DEGGANS: Then her mom reminds her how young she really was, and the voice inside her head changes.


NELISSE: (As Jenny) I'd like to begin this story by telling you something so beautiful.

DEGGANS: It's a risky storytelling technique because the viewer is often a step or two ahead of Jennifer, like in this scene where Jennifer remembers how Mrs. G and Bill sympathized with her over her strict and inattentive parents.


JASON RITTER: (As Bill) Your parents are just afraid. They cannot accept that you are becoming a woman. They can't see you the way that we can.

NELISSE: (As Jenny) They're such hypocrites. I hate them.

FRANCES CONROY: (As Mrs. G) You shouldn't hate them, Jenny. You should pity them.

DEGGANS: But viewers are pitying Jennifer because we can see Mrs. G and Bill are grooming her, distancing her from the people most likely to protect her. Jason Ritter is note-perfect as Bill, a handsome, accomplished running coach whose easy charm blinds the shy teen. But the scenes where he manipulates and seduces young Jennifer, played by Isabelle Nelisse, are very difficult to watch, including their first sex together. At times, the film feels like a dreamy whodunit as Jennifer piles up evidence of how the experience damaged her, unsatisfying sexual relationships, ongoing commitment issues, which mostly makes her mom feel defensive.


BURSTYN: (As Nettie) I just don't understand. Why did you keep going back?

DERN: (As Jennifer) I got something else. Mom, I wanted somebody to think I was special.

BURSTYN: (As Nettie) You are always special to me.

DERN: (As Jennifer) Mom.

DEGGANS: Ultimately, "The Tale" is a wrenching, heartfelt success. It offers a powerful depiction of how tough it is to discard soothing fantasies and face a painful truth and the healing that comes for those who can manage to make the journey. I'm Eric Deggans. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
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