The latest film from Big Little Lies star Laura Dern has caused a stir at its Sundance debut, receiving both a standing ovation and audience walkouts.
The Tale, written and directed by documentary filmmaker Jennifer Fox, has been called a sort of ‘memoir-as-film’ and is a fictionalized account of an adult Fox reckoning with how she was taken advantage of by her two athletic trainers when she was 13 years old.
Dern, 50, stars as the adult Fox, who goes on a journey of reckoning after her mother, played by Ellen Burstyn, finds a story, the titular ‘Tale’, she wrote about the relationship.
Laura Dern, 50, and Isabelle Nélisse, 14, star in The Tale as Jennifer Fox (respectively as an adult and as a child)
The film starring Dern, left, was written and directed by Jennifer Fox, right, who reckoned with her sexual assault at the hands of her athletic trainers when she was 13
‘It’s hard to believe that at 13, I handed in to my sixth grade teacher a “fictional” story about the sexual relationship I had with two adored sports coaches,’ Fox told the Hollywood Reporter back when the film was announced in May 2016.
‘Now, more than 40 years later, that story has become the basis of a true investigative thriller into one woman’s memory, which could only be brought to the screen by the courageous acting powerhouse Laura Dern.’
The film opens with the line: ‘The story you are about to see is true… as far as I know,’ reports Indiewire, which saw the film at its debut on Saturday.
What follows is the journey Dern, as Fox, undertakes as she realizes that her equestrian trainer, called Mrs G in the film and played by Elizabeth Debicki, and her running coach, called Bill in the film and played by Jason Ritter, sexually assaulted her. The two are lovers in the film and their names have been changed from their real-life counterparts.
Pictured along with Fox are, from left to right, Jason Ritter (who plays one of the athletic trainers), Nélisse, Ellen Burstyn (who plays Fox’s mother) and Common (who plays Fox’s boyfriend)
Common, Nélisse, Ritter and Fox are pictured together at the Sundance Film Festival, where the film debuted on Saturday. The festival has taken place in Park City, Utah since 1981
The film alternates between adult Fox and child Fox, who is played by 14-year-old Isabelle Nélisse.
Most graphically, the film depicts Ritter’s character raping the young Fox. The film’s end credits note that an adult body double was used for Nélisse in the scene. The child actress did provide audio.
Bill seduces the young Fox with lines such as ‘You’re not afraid of life, right, Jenny?’, ‘We have to keep stretching you open, slowly’ and ‘No young boy would do this for you’.
During a Q&A after the film, writer-director and real-life inspiration Fox said she coached Nélisse through verbally acting out the rape scene with scenarios such as ‘act like you’ve been stung by a bee’ and ‘act like you’re being chased by a dog’.
The Daily Beast reports that ‘multiple people’ walked out at the rape scene, which the outlet said is depicted in ‘purposeful unflinching detail’.
The outlet notes: ‘The Tale isn’t a linear narrative about a child who was raped. It’s an adult woman’s journey to the horrifying realization that her innocence was preyed on….her struggle through frustrating notes of denial, rationalization, misremembrance and anger as she tries to piece together what really happened to her’.
Common and Fox enjoy the after party held for their film on Saturday. The film alternates between adult Fox and child Fox, who is played by 14-year-old Isabelle Nélisse
Dern is pictured with her Big Little Lies costar Reese Witherspoon at the Screen Actors Guild Awards on Sunday, January 21
The Huffington Post notes that at one point, Fox says in reference to her abuser: ‘I find that I trust him so much I never understand where he’s leading me. Once we’re that far, I never know how to say no.’
Multiple critics and journalists who saw the film noted how timely it is in the context of the #MeToo movement sprung from the revelation of disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein’s pattern of sexually assaulting and harassing women.
Since then, multiple men in the film industry and elsewhere have been accused of misconduct as the nation has faced a reckoning about how men treat women – and girls.
Currently in the headlines, for example is the story of Larry Nassar, the former doctor for the USA Gymnastics team who has been sentenced to 60 years in prison on charges of child pornography.
More than 140 female athletes have come forward to say that he sexually assaulted them in his capacity as a doctor.
The film received a standing ovation from its audience and received a perfect five stars from The Guardian and an A from Indiewire. The Huffington Post deemed the film ‘2018’s first great movie’.
‘The whole idea was to take out of the closet the idea that perpetrators aren’t monsters that we can pick out,’ director Fox said at the Q&A after the film.
Academy Award-winning actress Ellen Burstyn said at the Q&A: ‘The exploitation of innocence is a deep, criminal crime, and it’s time now, right now, in this moment in our history, to change it.
‘I want to thank Donald Trump for that disgusting tape that he made that we all heard that was the final straw that broke the camel’s back.
‘And we can now at last deal with this problem that has gone on for centuries all over the world. This film is giving voice to it.’
Her comments, per the Daily Beast, received a massive round of applause.
Regarding the filming of the rape scene, Ritter said: ‘No one wanted to create more trauma on the set, and having the body double there for me personally helped me to lean into it more.’
Through tears, he added: ‘It was really complicated, and when it was a grown woman there, it was easier for me to try to do some of those scenes.’
Renate Dalton, of Park City, holds up a sign reading ‘Equality For All’ during the Respect Rally in Park City on Saturday
Common speaks with actress Maria Bello at the rally, which was one of many women’s marches held across the country on Saturday
This year’s Sundance Film Festival lasts from January 18 to 28. It has been held in Park City, Utah since 1981 and is one of the largest independent film festivals in the world.
A Respect Rally – one of many women’s marches held across the country – was held in the ski resort town on Saturday. Attendees included Jane Fonda and Gloria Allred.