There is a gut-wrenching moment in a terrific performance by Laura Dern when the character of Jennifer, the protagonist of The Tale, suddenly realises that the story she has told herself about a love affair that occurred when she was thirteen was in fact a story of abuse and exploitation by a much older man.
Except ‘Jennifer’ isn’t just a character, she is Jennifer Fox (My Reincarnation, Beirut the Home Movie) writer, director, cinematographer and producer, who felt compelled to make a movie about her real-life events.
Intense, warm and direct, Fox spoke to FilmInk before the premier screening of The Tale at Sundance.
“It took ’til I was in my 40s till I had the perspective. It’s purely accidental it’s come out at this time of #MeToo and all the debates. The story is about memory, and the stories we tell ourselves to survive. Also, I wanted to show that sexual abuse is not a black and white issue and until we allow for these grey areas in our dialogue we won’t be able to prevent it.
“It wasn’t difficult to share the story, it was an exciting time for me to finally get at what is a difficult subject. I am privileged to be an artist, so for me it was an amazing opportunity to be able to dive in and try to finally get to the truth of this story. I was over the moon to work with Laura Dern, she’s the most courageous and fine actress. She came on the project a year and a half before there was financing. She cast Jason (Ritter who plays Bill, the older man) and Common (as Jennifer’s on-screen partner) so she was just a miracle. Jason did a spectacular job and Ellen Burstyn was amazing playing my mother.”
Dern was prevented from attending Sundance because of illness, but Burstyn, who delivers a strong performance as the mother who unearths a story written by Jennifer about the abusive relationship and encourages her to confront it, talked to FilmInk about the movie’s importance.
“First of all, it’s a personal film, she uses her own name, she doesn’t disguise that it’s her story and it’s very timely because it’s about sexual exploitation. It’s about what she called ‘an affair’ she had when she was 13 and the man was in his 40s and during the course of the film she comes to understand an affair isn’t what it was.
“It’s like what’s coming up with the gymnasts now (the gymnasts’ #MeToo/Larry Nassar announcements had just aired on TV that morning). They didn’t really understand at that age that they were being exploited, as was the case for Jennifer. It wasn’t until the mother found the story she’d written at that age that she came to look at it with new eyes. I found Jennifer a very intelligent woman, deep and feeling and kind, and I was aware of how meaningful the story was for her.
“I think there’s going to be a big change for women, that’s what this year is all about, not just for jobs but also the stories being told. The fact that Wonder Woman was a big money maker, that helped make a real change in attitudes about what a woman character on film can be.”
Australian Elizabeth Debicki does an extraordinary turn as the charismatic and complex Mrs. G, the woman who was complicit in what happened to Jennifer as a child. She was also absent from the red carpet, but Fox said, “I couldn’t ask for a better actress to play her, it was a pivotal role.”
Another piece of crucial casting was the young Jennifer. “Isabelle Nélisse was 11 years old when we shot the film and she was the only actress I found who had the authenticity to play the role,” says Fox.
Nélisse had previously acted in horror thriller Mama, so she had experience of tension on screen to assist what is a strong, believable playing of the role of the young teen being reeled in by manipulative adults.
The young actress told us, “The best part of filming was the cast – all the actors were so kind and welcoming. It was fantastic. My mom had talked to Jennifer about the script, then told me, ‘if you want to do it, it’s really your choice.’ When I knew it was a true story I really wanted to do it, even the difficult scenes, and to show the story to the world.”
“The scenes between young Jennifer and Bill were intimate,” explains Fox. “It was a deliberate decision to keep them in, to show the reality with no romanticisation, and how unpleasant and traumatic it really was. We shot the actors separately, no touching, not even in the same room, and Isabelle was on a vertical bed, we had a tutor and psychologist there. We were very careful and protective.”
As well as having an important issue to highlight, The Tale is a skillful weaving of threads of narrative and uncovering memory. Watching Dern as the older Jennifer and at first ‘unreliable narrator,’ the audience gets to be a step ahead of her as we are presented with patterns of behaviour that we are all too familiar with in this era of outing bullies and predators. Relationship difficulties, risk taking, denial on the side of the victim and grooming and entitlement on the side of the perpetrator are all documented in beautifully layered scenes.
Fox has pulled off the difficult feat of telling a personal story with both self-revelation and objectivity. As the opening voice-over says, ‘The story you are about to see is true – as far as I know.’
Images courtesy of the Sundance Institute.