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'The Tale' is a Disturbing True Story That is Important Viewing
May 26, 2018  | By David Hinckley

When a show is slotted for 10 o’clock (ET) Saturday night on a holiday weekend, it’s usually a good indication someone at the network thinks it’s going to be a hard watch.

The Tale, which HBO is showing at 10 p.m. ET this Saturday, qualifies. Sexual abuse of a child is the sort of thing most people, understandably, would prefer not to see dramatized.

More important than the timeslot, though, is the fact HBO is showing this film at all, because that makes it available on HBO platforms and means more people have a chance to see a story that’s as provocative as it is disturbing. It tells a depressingly familiar tale from a perspective usually unseen.

Laura Dern (top) plays, brilliantly, 48-year-old Jennifer, an accomplished and confident documentary filmmaker who has been engaged for three years to Martin (Common). He’s in the same field and they seem to have an easy, solid relationship.

Sometimes Jennifer’s mother Nettie (Ellen Burstyn) drives Jennifer nuts, so Jennifer keeps ducking what Nettie insists is an urgent phone call.

It turns out Nettie found a story that Jennifer wrote for school when she was 13. The assignment was to tell a story, and Jennifer’s story certainly got the class’s and the teacher’s attention.

She wrote in detail about a 13-year-old girl, frustrated by what she saw as the strict rules of her parents, falling in with a man and woman in their 30s who offered her a much freer world, where they would become their own family with their own rules.

The woman, Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki, below), taught horseback riding, about which young Jennifer was very serious. The man, Bill (Jason Ritter), coached running, about which Jenny was also very serious. So Jennifer’s parents agreed to let Jennifer spend weekends with Mrs. G, for the intensive immersion into the horse world, and they were comfortable that Bill might be around.

The coaching Bill and Mrs. G really have in mind, however, lies along a much darker path. They’re playing a long game to break down the reluctance and inhibitions of a child.

That part of the story has been dramatized before, though rarely in the skin-crawling detail here. The physical encounters are not graphic – and were all filmed with an adult body double – but in a way that only makes the psychological part creepier.

What sets The Tale apart is that it’s told through two sets of eyes, both Jennifer’s.

The adult Jennifer, who has repressed much of this memory, understands its horror once her mother’s discovery forces her to resurrect and relive it.

The young teenage Jennifer, the one who wrote the story, sees it much differently. To explain exactly how would spoil the drama, but she has the perspective of a young teenager who like so many of her peers thinks she already has things all figured out and can reshape events in her mind to confirm that she is, again, right.

As the repressed memory expands, the two Jennifers at times find themselves arguing, each quite certain she is right and the other doesn’t understand what’s really going on.

Meanwhile, we viewers are also gradually appreciating the impact of this childhood experience on the adult Jennifer. Here again, the film makes those revelations more implicit than explicit, and again this only deepens the psychological violence.

Writer/director Jennifer Fox says she based the film on a story she wrote herself at the age of 13. That’s the final chilling touch to a movie that has already become the most unsettling sort of bedtime story.

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