The Tale and the Truth About 13-Year-Old Girls

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A scene from The Tale. Photo: Kyle Kaplan/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

There’s a moment I remember vividly from my childhood inner monologue. I was 11 years old, standing in line for the school cafeteria, on the cusp of my elementary school graduation, and suddenly a thought popped into my head. You know fully and entirely who you are, my 11-year-old brain said. You understand the world. And even if some future self tells you otherwise, always remember what you know at this very moment, right now.

I don’t know why it happened right then — perhaps it was the encroaching of middle school and teen-hood, or my family’s imminent move — but some reason, 11-year-old me felt the need to protect the person I was then against the judgment of some future Anna. I am a person who knows things, I remember affirming to myself, waiting in line for Wednesday’s spaghetti Bolognese. And I’ve never forgotten that feeling, even as I have learned, over the years, just how little I knew and know about so many important things.

I was reminded of that moment while watching HBO’s The Tale, out Saturday, a film based on the true story of director Jennifer Fox’s life. The Tale captures what it’s like to teeter on the brink of adolescence — and it manages to respect both its young protagonist’s agency and her older self’s sense of justice. The result is an extraordinary exploration of sexual abuse, shaped by the ambiguities of memory and maturity.

In The Tale, Jennifer (played by Laura Dern) must reexamine a “relationship” she had with a grown-up track coach named Bill (Jason Ritter) when she was 13, after her mother (Ellen Burstyn) unearths a short story she wrote about it at the time. When the film opens, Jennifer is convinced the relationship was consensual, describing Bill nonchalantly as an “older boyfriend.” It’s only as she starts to interrogate her past — scrutinizing her own memories and talking to others who were there — that she realizes that she was sexually abused, and that her beloved riding instructor, Mrs. G. (Elizabeth Debicki), helped deliver her straight into Bill’s hands. The film received a rapturous reception at Sundance and has been hailed, like so many feminist cultural artifacts of recent months, as arriving at “the perfect time.” Yet The Tale resists any easy didacticism. Throughout, Fox refuses to paint her childhood self as an unambiguous victim — to treat her as if she doesn’t know who she is or how she sees the world. Instead, she asks how could something she once understood as “so beautiful” (a verbatim quote from that short story) be so ugly?

“It was my childhood and these things happened to me and it was complicated,” she implores to her boyfriend (played by Common) at one point. “This was important to me, and I’m trying to figure out why.”

There’s one moment, in particular, that serves as a powerful metaphor for the whole project. Much of the film takes place in flashback, as Jennifer tries to disentangle her subjective memories from objective reality. As she begins to reflect back on the past, we see her younger self, Jenny — a poised, statuesque teenage girl with a blonde half-ponytail — arriving at the summer horseback-riding program where she will gradually be groomed for abuse. Thirteen-year-old Jenny looks young, certainly, but her presence isn’t jarring; she looks not unlike the many sprightly ingénues through Hollywood history who have shared the screen with older male love interests. (The actress who plays her, Jessica Flaum, was around 16 when the film was shot.) A bit later in the film, the adult Jennifer goes to visit her mom and looks through some photo albums. She points to a picture of Jenny, a smile of relief on her face as she thinks of the summer at camp: “Oh yeah, that’s me.” Her mother corrects her. “Oh no, that’s ’75 — you were already 15 in that picture. Let me show you 13. There. That’s 13.” Her mom flips to a photo of a much, much younger girl — a chubby-cheeked, flat-chested child. Jennifer is horrified. “I was so little,” she gasps. From that point on, her flashbacks feature a much younger actress (Isabelle Nélisse, who was 11 at the time of filming) playing her in flashback. It’s a punch in the gut for viewers, and a perfect illustration of the disjuncture between how we see ourselves and how we look to the outside world.

When I spoke to Fox on the phone, she described the “realization that inside of me I felt so much older” that lay behind her choice as a filmmaker. “How I looked was not how I felt,” she said. “I mean, it’s so shocking how really young I was, and how young I looked. I really, really did look like a 9-year-old boy at 13. I was so undeveloped, and so immature.”

This casting verisimilitude packs an extra punch given The Tale’s explicit handling of its dark subject matter. For obvious reasons, most films that feature underage sex star older actors — Carey Mulligan, playing 16 and 17 in An Education, was in her early 20s; Bel Powley, playing 15 in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, was too. While there’s a logistical and moral logic to casting adults to play young people in explicit scenes, these choices distort our sense of what teenagers actually look like. (Films like Thirteen, and more recently Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, are notable exceptions.) Yet, controversially, and in a decision that inspired some Sundance walkouts, the film does feature scenes of Bill raping Jenny (a disclaimer informs us that an adult body double was used for these scenes).

For Fox, showing the reality of what these encounters looked like was a precondition to making the film. “For me, intuitively I felt, look, this film is about the fact that we cannot look away from what child sexual abuse looks like, and the horror is only in those scenes, it’s only in the crossing the line. And it seemed to me that in most films, it’s at that point that you fade to black or the door closes, and we’re led to imagine. Well, I feel like, for me, we had to see the truth, and truth is horrific. It was not nice. It was not romantic. It was painful. I threw up after each event,” she says. “So for me, it was nonnegotiable, and if we were going to make it, they were going to be in, and we prayed that audiences would go with us.”

Yet The Tale’s mission is not just to show what 13 looks like, but also what it feels like — and that’s where things become particularly murky. Over the course of the film, we witness the horrifying reality of childhood sexual abuse. But we also see the specific nuances of Jenny’s situation. The framing device of the film — the titular “tale,” which is the real short story she wrote when she was 13 — is essential in establishing young Jenny’s sense of self. We hear her narrate and define her own story, and see how this event in her childhood helped make her the storyteller she would become.

“I have made a decision,” Jenny says at one point. “I’m taking my life into my own hands.” We see the logic in her choices as she understands them: How Mrs. G and Bill became a surrogate family that compensated for neglect she was feeling at home, and how Bill made her feel special by giving her the attention and devotion she craved. We see how (in her mind, at least) sex with Bill is worth stomaching for the feeling of belonging the “relationship” gave her. And we also see these things the way that adult Jennifer will eventually come to see them — as two grown-ups colluding to prey on, abuse, and manipulate a child who they knew would keep quiet.

As I watched, I was profoundly reminded of what it felt like to be 13 — to believe I was totally in control, even when so much was beyond my grasp. Stories about adolescent girls being targeted by grown men would seem like some of the most black-and-white illustrations of sexual power imbalances. Yet the fact that even these cases become more complicated the more intimately you study them goes to show how fraught and contradictory any #MeToo story will inevitably be.

“There’s a way that adults want to erase their adolescent narratives, and, personally, I think we want to hear them,” Fox tells me. “I was making choices without the ability to understand or without the experience to know what was in front of me, but in my mind I was making choices. It wasn’t like I was a piece of putty. We can allow that this 13-year-old girl has a voice, has agency, but she doesn’t have experience, and that’s why she needs some adult protection. Maybe she can’t recognize the man manipulating her because she doesn’t have the experience to see, but it doesn’t mean she’s stupid. Society wants to erase the voice of teenage girls. Well, fuck, they have voices. They have voices, they have thoughts, they have ambitions.” For Fox, it was important to really try to understand who she was at that age. “It was important to investigate that — well, what did she think she was doing? She thought she was taking her life in her own hands.”

One of my favorite things about The Tale is the immense compassion Fox shows her younger self. Throughout the film, we see present-day Jennifer and young Jenny in imagined dialogues with one another. “You’ve become just like all of them, you just want to tell me what to do,” Jenny snaps to her older self at one point. In another particularly moving scene, these past and present selves confront each other in a school corridor.

“You lied to me, you told me it was a good thing all these years,” says Jennifer, wounded.

Jenny snaps back: “You want me to be some pathetic victim. Well you know what, I’m not.”

Jennifer tries to get Jenny to understand how this trauma will stick with her; tells her that she won’t have kids, she won’t ever get married.

Jenny is unfazed. “I hate children, I don’t want to have children. I’m sure of that. But I know one thing.” A smile creeps across her face. “He loved me. He cried. He cried, didn’t you see? And for years, he’s going to send me cards.”

These love letters begin to rain down in a torrent all around her. “You see? I’m not the victim of this story. I’m the hero. He fell apart, not me.”

There are plenty of stories of unambiguous evil visited upon children by sinister adults, but there are few stories that dwell in the interiority of these women and girls who have lived through these horrors, and the ways they find how to survive and evolve. In many ways, the film is a tribute to young Jenny, who, in Fox’s view, performed a heroic act of self-preservation. The reason Fox never understood her abuse as abuse until she was much older, she explains, is because she “couldn’t have survived” that knowledge until then. “It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that a crack could even appear in the wall that maybe I didn’t have as much agency as I thought,” she tells me. It was only when she was making documentaries and talking to countless women who had experienced abuse and assault that Fox came to see her own childhood in a new light. “I began to think about the stories we tell ourselves to survive and how we preference which stories are allowed to live in us, really.” Fox describes it as a survival instinct. “It wasn’t until I was a mature, more developed person, that I had the strength to face the darker parts of that story. And I think that’s fine. We have to respect what people need to survive. I actually think, Wow, I’m really grateful to my child self who unconsciously navigated what could’ve landed me in a mental institution. Basically, my child self left behind the hurt part of me and picked up and said, ‘Soldier on. You can do this.’”

When I asked how she thought her younger self would feel about this film, Fox began to cry. “I think she’d be proud of both of us,” she told me through tears. “That was one of the real surprises of the investigation of the script writing, was [discovering] that this girl created me, and I am what she wanted to be. It wasn’t accidental.” Fox reflects with pride on some of the things she did early in her career, like going to Beirut to shoot a film when she was 21 years old. “What 21-year-old girl does that?” she asks incredulously. “That child said ‘I’m not gonna let this event stop me,” she reflects. Maybe I didn’t know what was going to happen, but now that I know, I’m gonna get out and I’m gonna go on and I’m gonna be a hero.’”

“She created me, and now there’s parts of me left behind that have to be reckoned with,” Fox concludes. “So I think that she would be happy and I think that the two voices are real. They’re not the same voice; we’re not the same person at every moment of our life.”

The Tale and the Truth About 13-Year-Old Girls