HBO Films will premiere The Tale, Jennifer Fox’s powerful narrative memoir about her own reckoning with childhood sexual abuse, on May 26th, and Fox joined castmembers Laura Dern, Isabelle Nélisse, Jason Ritter, Ellen Burstyn and Common for a moving panel after Sunday night’s AwardsLine screening of the film at LA’s Landmark Theatre.
The film, which started shooting in 2015, came together in advance of the #MeToo and Time’s Up tidal waves that have shifted the conversation on gender equality and sexual abuse, and the courage it took to relate this story was the dominant theme of the evening’s discussion, moderated by Deadline’s Joe Utichi.
Based on Fox’s own life—Dern and Nélisse play Jennifer Fox at different ages—The Tale deals with the moment, years after the fact, that Fox was forced to grapple with the memories of her first sexual encounter aged 13. “It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that what I called a relationship, all of a sudden I realized was abuse,” she noted.
Fox, whose storied work in documentary film includes the highly personal series Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman, turned to narrative film for the first time to construct a wholly unique portrait of the way memories can shift and rewrite themselves in our minds. It is with the rediscovery of an essay written when she was 13 that the older Jennifer Fox, played by Dern, is forced to confront the 13-year-old version of herself (Nélisse), who framed her relationship with a much older running coach in the language of first love and unforced desire.
“It took me years to write [the film] because it was such a complicated telling, and it’s really more about the stories we tell ourselves to survive, and why we need to tell ourselves stories,” the filmmaker explained. “There are so many things that are too heavy to deal with when you’re younger, that it takes until maturity to be able to face.”
Dern’s journey with The Tale stemmed from a conversation with filmmaker Brian De Palma, an important mentor to Fox. Dern recalled De Palma’s powerful and compelling brief: “[He] said, ‘You’re going to receive a script that is difficult and painful and brave…But take it seriously. It’s so radical, it’s so brave, and you should go on this journey.'”
For Dern, “What’s extraordinary about this time is that we all are considering together how we’ve normalized behavior, to ourselves, as a community, as a culture. It has been a reckoning for many of us individually, to see how we said things like, ‘Well, it was the ‘70s,’ or ‘I looked very mature for my age.’ We took the blame, and we were silenced by our own cultural shaming.”
It was a welcome, if unexpected, climate in which to launch the film, she said, noting the conversations about taking on this story began many years ago. “This zeitgeist has said that there is restorative justice here,” Dern said. “There is reward in being a witness to something and sharing your voice, and that has really changed the conversation. There is therefore less fear, through a piece of art that you make, to all have conversations together, and hopefully, allow it be the groundbreaking time we all so desperately need.“
Fox noted the particular courage shown by Jason Ritter in taking on the role of her abuser Bill. “I think, Jason, you’re the most courageous, actually, of all of us,” she said. “We know from statistics that 93% of perpetrators are known by the children who they abuse. That means that they don’t look evil; they’re part of communities; they’re successful, they’re loved. Jason really embodied the kindness and the complexity of what I wanted to bring to this telling.”
But by the time he’d read it, he insisted, “there had already been so many incredible acts of courage that led up to this moment—Jennifer writing it, people coming on board. If I was going to be the coward to back out at the end, I wouldn’t have been able to look at myself. The truth was that I read the script and I thought it was so profound and incredibly honest, and I felt like I was opening doors in my mind that I hadn’t even cared to open, looking at this experience and getting a deeper understanding of what this can be like.”
Fox’s film acknowledges, too, the pain and power of those people in her life who were closest to witnessing the revelatory journey she was on. It was her mother, played in the film by Ellen Burstyn, who first pushed her to reckon with her memory when she stumbled upon the essay Fox had written as a child. Common plays a fictionalized version of Fox’s partner, who struggles and supports Fox as she deals with the fallout of discovering her truth.
“My mother was a teacher, and she would tell me that a lot of her students had experienced childhood sexual abuse,” Common noted. “I would hear it and I would feel for them, but when I saw this film, it made me see it in a whole other way. What I’m hoping is that when people see this film, that they will be charged to be active. I feel like this film is charged enough to make us want to do something.”
Fox’s revelation came to her too late to push for prosecution of the real Bill. But she hopes The Tale will shine a light on statute of limitation laws, which in her home state of Pennsylvania meant she was far too late to pursue a case once her revelation occurred. “It’s actually quite common that people do wake up in middle age,” Fox noted. “I ran out of time when I was 30 to prosecute. I didn’t even use the words ‘sexual abuse’ until I was 45.”
After the screening, cards for RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline (800.656.HOPE) were available for audience members affected by the issues raised in the film. And Fox noted that a campaign would accompany The Tale‘s 5/26 premiere date. “We have a huge outreach campaign, side-by-side to the beautiful way HBO is taking it out for millions and millions of people to see. Getting it to schools, to psychologists; to communities not just in America, but around the world.”
Watch the video above for more from Sunday night’s panel.
Matt Grobar contributed to this report.