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Not many movies leave me speechless, but on exiting the Sundance Film Festival screening of “The Tale,” I found that my words were not coming to me. My throat was choked up, my mind still reeling from Jennifer Fox’s movie, “The Tale,” about the abuse she experienced as a child.

Several months after an explosive Sundance debut, HBO’s “The Tale” premiered on Saturday. In the film, Laura Dern plays a version of her director, Jennifer Fox. She’s a working filmmaker with a teaching job and a relationship.

She looks like she has her life together until a frantic phone call from her mom (Ellen Burstyn) reveals she unearthed Jennifer’s diary and the horrid tale she confided in its pages. Its discovery leads Jennifer to piece together who she once was – a teenager who innocently trusts her horseback riding and running coaches until she becomes one of their victims.

It’s structured like a mystery, each puzzle piece falling into place one step at a time. Like a reporter investigating her own past, Jennifer goes back to the scene of the crime and interviews her mother, old friends and one of her coaches to remember the trauma she had buried deep inside her memory.

Jason Ritter and Isabelle Nélisse in a scene from, "The Tale." (Courtesy of HBO)
Jason Ritter and Isabelle Nélisse in a scene from, "The Tale." (Courtesy of HBO)

The film cleverly tweaks details misremembered in Jennifer’s memories. Maybe she looked older and that’s why her running coach, Bill (Jason Ritter), was attracted to her. We see Jennifer as how she thinks she looks compared to photographs of how she actually looked.

“The Tale” is not just a recreation of bad memories. It’s a story of how survivors move forward through their trauma.

Young Jennifer writes these events in a notebook, but decades later, she can’t remember everything that happened. The people around her think they know how she should cope with her past, but there’s no prescribed way rape survivors should act.

In her quest for answers, Jennifer pushes away loved ones to sort through her emotions and tries to confront those who hurt her. The messy inconsistencies ring true for a reason.

Jason Ritter and Elizabeth Debicki in a scene from, "The Tale." (Courtesy of HBO)
Jason Ritter and Elizabeth Debicki in a scene from, "The Tale." (Courtesy of HBO)

The movie is based on the real Jennifer Fox’s girlhood experience. Like a half-remembered memory, her true story and the filled-in narratives blend seamlessly into one another, making it almost impossible to figure out which parts are real and which are made up. Fox tells only what’s she’s comfortable with talking about, and it’s not up to the audience to invalidate it.

“The Tale” is told on her terms, not someone else’s.

In a way, the film is a powerful piece of therapy. A way to bury the past by bringing it into the light. ”The Tale” is not a film about advocacy or a documentary about child abuse. It’s Fox’s personal and artistic interpretation of what was taken from her when she was young and what it’s given her all these years later.

The movie’s main photo, that of Dern staring forward and sitting next to her character’s childhood counterpart, strikes an emotional coda. It’s a symbol of reconciling with your past regrets and guilt, a recognition of pain you’ve survived and an acknowledgment that what happened to you does not define you. A portrait of survival, writ large.

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