Telling the story of a woman’s experience with childhood sexual abuse, “The Tale” seems like it was made precisely for the #MeToo era. But three years ago when writer-director Jennifer Fox began work on the project, such a topic was considered unspeakable.
“When you talk about courage, everybody on the cast had enormous courage,” Fox said. “It was years before the #MeToo movement and Time’s Up, so this was really radical, this film. It was a taboo. So everyone on the team took a real leap of faith.”
At Sunday’s FYC screening and panel for the HBO film, which stars Laura Dern as Fox’s onscreen self, Fox and the cast discussed the ways in which the film complicates conversations about sexual abuse. The film is based on Fox’s personal experiences, as Dern’s character discovers in middle age that an adult she loved and trusted raped her when she was 13 years old.
“What’s extraordinary about this time, in terms of sharing your story at this time, is also that we all are considering together how we’ve normalized behavior to ourselves, as a community, as a culture,” Dern said during the panel at The Landmark. “We took blame, and we were silenced by our own cultural shaming. We had decided, because culture told us, that you are quiet about those things because if you’re the one that speaks up, you’re the one that loses.”
But, Dern added, because so many have shared their stories publicly, as Fox did with “The Tale,” cultural discourse surrounding sexual assault is in positive transition.
“This zeitgeist has also said that there is restorative justice here,” Dern said. “There’s reward in being a witness to something and using your voice, sharing your experience when you see multitudes of people come forward. That has really changed the conversation, that there is therefore less fear — through a piece of art that you make — to all have conversations together and hopefully allow it to be the groundbreaking time we all so desperately need.”
In addition to the performances from Dern and her young counterpart, Isabelle Nelisse, Fox stressed the cruciality of Jason Ritter‘s portrayal as her abuser. Ritter, she said, was the perfect face to cast because he looked like someone “who you would leave your child with.”
“Child sexual abuse is shown in such a black-and-white, unreal way in the media, and for me, this film is really about opening up the conversation,” Fox said. “Children can love their abusers, which is something we’ve never heard before, but if we don’t talk about these things, we can’t see it coming, we can’t prevent it, and we also can’t help survivors.”
Fox added she also hopes the film can potentially have a legal impact, as statute of limitation laws in Pennsylvania rendered her unable to pursue a case against her abuser when she recalled her repressed memories later in life.
“It’s actually quite common that people do wake up in middle age,” Fox said. “I ran out of time when I was 30 to prosecute. I didn’t even use the word sexual abuse until I was 45.”
The cast and crew have also attached a sexual abuse awareness campaign to the May 26 release of the film. Staff handed out contact cards for reporting and recovery resources at the end of the event. The complete panel discussion, moderated by Deadline’s Joe Utichi, included Fox, Dern, Nelisse, Ritter, Ellen Burstyn and Common.