- Sundance Institute
- Director Jennifer Fox recounts being sexually abused at the age of 13 in her new movie, “The Tale.”
- Laura Dern plays Fox, who after coming across a story she wrote at 13, begins to uncover her “special” relationship with two adult coaches.
- The movie is getting an incredible response at the Sundance Film Festival.
Jennifer Fox has spent her career making documentaries, but with her latest movie, “The Tale,” she’s turned to narrative storytelling and uses the structure to explore her experience with sexual abuse.
In the era of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, “The Tale” is a project that has shown up right when everyone in Hollywood is publicly grappling with sexual misconduct. But the process of making “The Tale” started long before the Harvey Weinstein sexual misconduct allegations kick-started the conversation.
Unlike documentaries, which can be shot and edited at a quick pace (while a hot-button issue is in the zeitgeist), narrative storytelling takes a lot longer. You have to develop a script, get the money, cast it, shoot it, edit it, and so on. It takes years, and can lead to movies with a social pulse feeling dated when finally released.
Fox didn’t anticipate our culture’s current examination of sexual misconduct when she decided to make “The Tale,” but sometimes a story and an issue link up.
At 13 years old, Fox wrote a story titled “The Tale” for a school project. It addressed a girl talking about her “special” relationship with two adult coaches – one male, one female. She said the work was fiction, but in fact it was all too true. Fox has now taken it and adapted it into a movie.
In the film, Laura Dern plays Jennifer. Like Fox, she’s a thriving documentarian. But when her mother (Ellen Burstyn) comes across “The Tale” story she wrote at 13, she sends it to her daughter as she realizes, reading between the lines, that what Jennifer wrote was truth not fiction.
- Nicholas Hunt/Getty
At first, Jennifer deflects her mother’s theory. Reading the story she composed 40 years ago, she doesn’t see anything that would suggest that the relationships she had with her coaches (the female, her horse riding coach; the male, her running and conditioning coach) were inappropriate. But quickly her childhood memories return, and eventually Jennifer heads out on a fact-finding mission that leads to her confronting the two coaches (played by Frances Conroy and the late John Heard in the present day, and Jason Ritter/Elizabeth Debicki in flashbacks).
But what is striking about “The Tale” is the unconventional way the story is told.
Flashbacks and unreliable memories
Fox uses flashbacks to recount her 13-year-old self in the 1970s. But she often replays scenes and sequences numerous times, as the character receives revelations from friends and family that change what she thought happened. This dramatizes how memory can never be 100% reliable, and shows how the brain can alter facts to cope with bad memories.
Fox also uses her documentary style, setting up scenes in which grown-up Jennifer asks questions to her younger self, and the two coaches, as if the scenes were revealing one-on-ones for a doc.
However, the part of the movie that’s going to get the biggest reaction is the graphic nature of the sexual content. Fox doesn’t hold back in showing how the coaches manipulate Jennifer into a sexual relationship with the male coach, with scenes depicting the coach having sexual encounters with her, even taking her virginity.
The scenes are very tough to watch, but they are essential to the movie. They are not there to glorify or titillate, but to lay out to the audience how the coaches made Jennifer feel she was the one with the power, and was becoming a woman through their guidance, when in fact she was just their pleasure toy.
Dern gives a powerhouse performance as a strong-willed woman who has to reexamine her life. Child actress Isabelle Nélisse plays 13-year-old Jennifer with a maturity that’s astounding to watch. Burstyn, Ritter, Debicki, Conroy, and Heard all give strong supporting performances (Common plays Jennifer’s boyfriend – but it’s not his best work).
“The Tale” is the first movie that really epitomizes the #MeToo movement. Though there will likely be a lot of talk about the sex scenes in the movie, this is a story that needs to show the horrors to tell it correctly.
The powerful stories of victims revealed in newspapers, magazines, and websites since last October is what has made the country take notice. This is not the time to water things down.
“The Tale” is seeking distribution.