'Ordinary horror.' Dark Tale of sexual abuse starring Laura Dern and Elizabeth Debicki
Making a film about your own sexual abuse as a teenager –that’s something you don’t imagine getting pitched around many film studio boardrooms. But for experienced documentarian Jennifer Fox, making a narrative around a relationship she had with an adult man when she was 13 years old was a project she wanted to complete for years – despite most people trying to discourage her.
“Discouragement is an understatement,” she says wryly. “I made this film before Me Too and Time’s Up and approaching anyone about making a film about your own sexual abuse, you’d hear ‘That’s impossible, no one will finance it, who’s going to want to see it, that’s way too dark’,” she quotes.
But The Tale, which debuted at Sundance 2018, had its TV premiere on HBO and has its UK premiere at Sundance London, along with other screenings, this weekend, turns out to be an almost near-perfect 5 star movie watch, with Laura Dern taking the role of Jen Fox, Elizabeth Debicki as Mrs G, who hosts Jen at her riding school in the summer, and a superb turn from young Canadian actress Isabelle Nélisse as teenager Jen. Jason Ritter takes on the part of Matt, Mrs G's friend.
"I left my name in as a way to protect the film," Jennifer Fox, Director
Jennifer Fox attributes her tenacity to the encouragement she did get from her close friends in persisting.
“Fortunately, I’ve had a long career and friends like Brian De Palma really believed in me. He was the one who said, ‘only Laura Dern has the range to play this,’ and called up her agent. Laura Dern came on board eighteen months before there was any financing. And when great filmmakers really believe in you, that adds belief and like any film you keep persevering until the ball is so big it finally starts rolling,” she says.
"I call it ordinary horror - there's no violence and no knife but you can see the character is suffering." Jennifer Fox on bringing the reality of sexual abuse to film.
Fox plays with memory in The Tale, switching teenage actresses at one point to emphasise that memory is not reality. “ I had this emotional picture of myself through the years that I was older and much more ready for what happened than I was. I was a typical adolescent thinking I could handle something and actually, I couldn’t.”
Viewers who think they cannot handle sex scenes involving a thirteen year old child should know from the start that an adult body double was used. The scenes are appropriately shocking – it’s appropriate that the audience should be shocked and see the reality. Jennifer Fox calls it “ordinary horror.”
“That’s what it is,” she says. “It’s not violent and there’s no knife but you see the character is suffering, and it’s also important that you see the adult thinks he’s doing something good.
“Having the scenes were a deal breaker for me, I wouldn’t have made the movie without them. You also need to see that there’s an emotional exchange going on between the two of them – the child – me – is thinking, I’ll do this if you carry on giving me love and attention.
“Also-that’s why I left my name in the film, in order to protect it. I was afraid people would say, ‘oh abuse doesn’t happen like this’ so I wanted to stand up for the truth of it.”
Has making the film provided a release from the trauma of those memories?
“It’s was only transformative in the same way every other film I made was,” she replied. “Every time you make art you’re curious about a subject and you want to make something. This is what it was for me.”
The Tale is showing at Sundance London
For more information about watching The Tale,