Directly after Sundance’s version of the Women’s March, the Respect Rally, the festival screened its first film to land a standing ovation: The Tale, a sexual abuse memoir from documentarian Jennifer Fox. The powerful film depicts the abuse she endured as a pre-pubescent 13-year-old at the hands of her male running coach, abetted by her female riding teacher. Told through the vehicle of memory, with Laura Dern portraying the adult Jennifer Fox and Mama actress Isabelle Nelisse portraying her 13-year old self, the movie toggles between the present and past as Dern’s Jennifer tries to piece together what happened to her as a child, and how she characterized the experience as a consensual relationship in order to protect herself.
“I wanted to tell this story since it happened when I was 13,” said Fox, whose last documentary series, Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman, debuted at the festival back in 2007. In fact, it was while working on that series—which maps the worlds of female life and sexuality—that she knew she had to delve into her own past.
“I was talking to women around the world, and I started to hear my story. It didn’t matter the class, the color, the nationality, anecdotally; it was like one in two women had a story [like this]. And it just blew my cover. This event that I always called a relationship, all of a sudden, wasn’t personal, wasn’t individual, but was actually universal. And it was then that I thought it was time to make this film. Time to tell this story.”
Fox and her massive producing team forked for six years to get The Tale made. There were personal struggles that came with confronting the dark side of her reality, and there were practical ones. “You can’t imagine the kind of nails we walked over to get this made,” she said.
Dern, who wasn’t able to attend the film’s premiere due to a bad flu, joined the film years before they had financing; according to Fox during the Q&A, the actress was instrumental in bringing Common and Jason Ritter to the project.
The film goes into intimate detail about sexual abuse, and the audience was very interested to learn how Fox shot the scenes to insure Nelisse’s safety. Fox explained that in addition to a studio teacher and a SAG rep, there was also a psychiatrist and Nelisse’s mother on set. There was also no physical contact between Nelisse and Ritter, who plays Fox’s abuser. Nelisse was shot only on a vertical bed, and according to Fox, she and her young actress had a series of verbal cues to inspire Nelisse’s different reactions—such as ‘act like a bee is stinging you,’ or ‘act like you’re being chased by a dog.’
Fox added that Nelisse shot days apart from when Ritter shot the physical scenes with an adult woman body double.
“No one wanted to create more trauma or anything like that on set,” said Ritter.
“Having the body double there allowed me personally the ability to lean into it more,” he added. “It was complicated. Even in some of the scenes when I was talking to—here, he started crying—“Isabelle. When it was a grown woman there, it was easier for me to do some of the scenes.”
Ellen Burstyn played Fox’s mother, a woman who discovers Jennifer’s stories and letter when she is a grown woman and confronts her about her past.
The film struck a chord with the actress: “I’m not sure I’m going to be able to speak,” she said, with a quiver in her voice. “The exploitation of innocence is a deep criminal crime and its time now, right now at this moment in our history to change it. I want to thank Donald Trump for that disgusting tape that he made that we all heard, that was the final straw that broke this camel’s back. And we can now at last, deal with this problem that has gone on for centuries all over the world and this film is giving voice to it.”
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