Jennifer Fox spent over three decades as a documentary filmmaker before writing and directing her first feature fiction film, The Tale.
During the mid-2000s, in the process of interviewing women in 17 countries about sexuality for her documentary series Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman, Fox made a startling discovery about her own sexual history. The relationship that she had had at age 13 with her adult male coach, she realized, was not just the consensual affair she had always talked about. It was abuse.
The Tale recounts Fox’s piecing together this encounter after discovering a short story she wrote as a girl. The film is as much about memory as it is about childhood sexual abuse. Early in the film, she envisions herself as a self-assured, mature teen. When she finds a photo of herself at age 13 and hears others say how quiet she was at that age, she must restart her own recollection of the story—this time with the more awkward, unsure, and immature girl she was.
The Tale is revolutionary in its depiction of child abuse for many reasons. First, Fox did not shy away from depicting the more explicit moments, which are excruciating to watch. To protect the young actress in the film, she filmed the scenes between Jenny and Bill separately—a fact a viewer would never suspect.
Secondly, Fox carefully shows the appeal of the abusers to the girl. Jenny wants so much to be noticed, to be heard, and to be treated like an adult—Bill and Mrs. G (who leads Jenny to Bill) both know how to manipulate Jenny so she thinks she’s getting what she wants.
But perhaps most importantly, Fox kept the girl’s point-of-view throughout the entire story. While the adult Jennifer (played by Laura Dern) believes the encounter to be sexual abuse, the child Jenny (played by Isabelle Nélisse) nevertheless insists on her own agency stating, “I’m not the victim of this story. I’m the hero.”
The Tale is a brave and authentic film—one that challenges us to think about the tales that we tell ourselves in order to cope. It’s no wonder the film received standing ovations at the Sundance Film Festival and Tribeca Film Festival.