Alas, some of the most meaningful films and TV series are the very hardest to sit through. You will likely feel queasy and somewhat unsettled during “The Tale,” a beautifully made HBO film that, like the more biting Showtime miniseries “Patrick Melrose,” directly addresses the sexual abuse of children and its radioactive emotional fallout. But for your two hours of discomfort, you will gain a better understanding of the insidious ways in which sexual predators work, and a clearer picture of how a victim’s denial and memory can conspire to bury the truth in the name of self-protection.
You will also gain the experience of watching a wisely written, inventively directed, and extraordinarily acted story in which a woman — Laura Dern’s Jennifer — journeys into her past, so laden with unexplained pain, to reclaim her life. It’s a rare thing for a film to anatomize the complex processes of memory and healing as effectively as “The Tale,” which premieres Saturday at 10 p.m.
The film is the first scripted effort from documentary filmmaker Jennifer Fox, and it’s autobiographical. Her story begins when she receives a short story in the mail that her mother, Nettie (Ellen Burstyn), stumbled across. Jennifer wrote the story, also called “The Tale,” for an English class when she was 13, and it’s about her relationship with the older man, Bill (Jason Ritter), and older woman, Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki), from the horse farm where she spent a summer. Nettie is worried and stricken with guilt, as she senses that her daughter was raped, that the story was not fiction, as young Jennifer had claimed it was.
In Jennifer’s 13-year-old mind, her relationship with Bill, her running coach, and Mrs. G, her riding coach, was a gift. She was entering a teen rebellion, and she opens the short story with the line, “I’d like to begin this story by telling you something so beautiful.” And the 48-year-old Jennifer, now living with her cinematographer boyfriend Martin (Common), still thinks of the relationship as consensual. She romanticizes Bill and Mrs. G. But the upended memories begin to gnaw at her, especially since, as a documentary filmmaker and teacher, she is always working to get the truth out of her interview subjects. She recognizes all her own signs of deflection, and pushes herself into realizations she has dodged for decades.
One of the hardest parts for Jennifer is accepting the idea that she was — is — a victim. She is a powerful woman with a high-powered professional life, and she doesn’t have room in her self-image for victimhood and old wounds. She can’t bear the sympathy that her mother and, when he senses the truth, Martin are offering her. The true story doesn’t fit into the narrative she has of her own life. As a driven journalist, though, she begins to ask questions — literally — of her younger self (played mostly, and exquisitely, by Isabelle Nélisse) as well as other figures from her past.
I’m not going to spoil all of the tricks that Fox, so confident in her approach with “The Tale,” uses to re-create the ways we reframe memories. I don’t want to undermine the power of her cinematic language, which involves casting and camerawork. But the overall impact is crushing. Dern, too, is essential to the success of the film, as she delivers yet another seamless performance. She gets support from Ritter, whose boy-next-door face serves his characterization well, and from Debicki, who makes Mrs. G into a charismatic mentor. But Dern brings the honesty and spirit that buoy the whole film, as Jennifer courageously suffers for the truth.
Starring: Laura Dern, Elizabeth Debicki, Jason Ritter, Ellen Burstyn, Common, Frances Conroy, John Heard, Laura Allen, Isabelle Nélisse
On: HBO, Saturday at 10 p.m,Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.