Few movies at this year’s Sundance Film Festival garnered as much buzz and conversation as Jennifer Fox’s searing narrative debut “The Tale.” Laura Dern stars as a cinematic version of Fox, a documentary filmmaker forced to contend with the realization that she was abused as a child by her beloved track coach (Jason Ritter), an experience she is only able to unravel decades later. Fox utilizes her own documentary background to untangle “The Tale,” aided by a unique narrative style that toys with the very concept of memory.
It also includes some of the festival’s most controversial scenes. In order to best tell the story — again, Fox’s own story — “The Tale” doesn’t shy away from putting the most intimate details of Fox’s abuse on the screen, including the steady “grooming” behavior of Ritter’s character as he breaks down young Jenny’s (Isabelle Nélisse) in order to sexually abuse her. The effect is a powerful one, with Fox taking back her own history to make a stirring narrative.
The film’s Saturday-afternoon premiere received a standing ovation at the Eccles Theatre, the festival’s largest venue. For Fox, a longtime documentary filmmaker and journalist, the decision to use her own story as the basis for her inventive and honest narrative debut was a long time coming. It wasn’t until she started working on her 2006 docu-series “Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman” that she realized her story went far beyond her individual experience.
“I was talking to women around the world, and I started to hear my story,” Fox said. “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.”
She continued, “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.”
It’s not just that “The Tale” includes scenes of molestation and rape; it’s that it includes scenes of molestation and rape written and directed by the very victim who endured them. While the scenes themselves are horrific and deeply uncomfortable, Fox delivers them with the maximum of both impact and care.
During the premiere’s Q&A , the audience understandably wanted to know how Fox and her team shot the scenes in order to make everyone — especially Nélisse, who was 13 at the time of shooting, just like her character — feel safe and cared for. Fox explained that her set included a variety of resources for the actress, including a studio teacher, a SAG rep, a psychiatrist, and her own mother.
The filmmaker also emphasized there was no physical contact between Nélisse and Ritter, with their scenes shot days apart. For Nélisse, that meant shooting only on a vertical bed, with the camera trained squarely on her face. Fox used a variety of cues to inspire different emotions in her star, like “act like a bee is stinging you” or “act like you’re being chased by a dog.”
When it came time for Ritter to shoot his scenes, he was paired with an adult body double. “No one wanted to create more trauma on the set, and having the body double there for me personally helped me to lean into it more,” Ritter said, stopping briefly to cry. “It was really complicated… when it was a grown woman there, it was easier for me to try to do some of those scenes.”
The weight of Fox’s story is unquestionable, but that it’s her telling it recontextualizes it in an entirely new way. Like Dern’s character, she’s taking back her own narrative, even — or perhaps especially — when it requires the inclusion of a challenging and pivotal sequence.
“I wanted to tell this story since it happened when I was 13,” Fox told the crowd on Saturday. With “The Tale,” she’s done it in the most deft and powerful way possible.
“The Tale” premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.