When Jennifer Fox was 14, she wrote a story for her school English class called “The Tale” about “two very special people I’ve come to love dearly… I’m lucky enough to be able to share in their love”. Those two people were Fox’s female riding teacher and her male running coach. Together, they befriended and groomed the pre-pubescent Jenny, who "lost her virginity" (as she saw it then) to the coach at 13, before she even had her first period.
Such was the repressive atmosphere in 1970s American suburbia that Fox – who has now made a fictionalised film, The Tale, about her experience – said nothing to her parents or friends. “I didn’t use the words ‘sexual abuse’ until I was in my forties,” she says, at the launch of her feature at Sundance London. Fox, 58, only began unpacking her suppressed memories when her horrified mother discovered the story in a box of memorabilia. (Fox’s schoolteacher, incidentally, thought it was a great piece of fiction.)
The film stars Laura Dern as Fox and Isabelle Nélisse as her 13-year-old self, with Elizabeth Debicki as Mrs G, the English riding teacher, and Jason Ritter as Bill the running coach. But aside from the stellar acting, what makes this account of being groomed as a child so powerful is its complexity and nuance – that each person, when confronted with the case, has a different version of the truth, including Fox herself. As the opening credits note, “the story you are about to see is true – as far as I know”.
In this season of #MeToo, as many women wonder about, re-live and re-interpret unwanted sexual advances or assaults in the past, The Tale gently amasses evidence until it is enough to convince Fox, an award-winning and exacting documentary maker. “I feel this is the right moment for this film – that we are still fighting on as women, when we hoped the battle would be over.”
After #MeToo, I feel this is the right moment for this film – that we are still fighting on as women, when we hoped the battle would be over
Early on, we see Fox as a tall teenager, confidently entering the stables, ready to tell her own story – Fox’s first recalled image. But that’s a 15-year-old actress. After the director looked at family photo albums, she created something closer to the truth: a tiny, flat-chested, childlike 13-year-old, who is about to be manipulated by the glamorous, smiling adults around her. Various characters break through the fourth wall to speak directly to the camera and question assumptions, just as Fox came to question herself as her investigation grew. Much of the film is based on transcripts of real conversations with all those involved, including Fox’s mother, played by Ellen Burstyn. “She thought watching it would be a lot worse,” says Fox, relieved.
Although an adult body double is used, and the sexual scenes are shown without detail, the growing intimacy and the very sight of a 13-year-old child and a 40-year-old man together under a blanket made me feel close to having a panic attack in the cinema. I tell Fox this and she says it was quite different for her: “I was obsessed with ways of constructing the film, putting together the strands of the story, making discoveries. It had happened to me and it no longer shocked me.”
The eldest of five, Fox says, “I was the child no one noticed” – except by those predatory adults outside her family. Of course, Fox was improving her running, learning how to show jump, being lavished with attention and seemed happy at summer camp at Mrs G’s stables with other girls. “In that Jewish middle-class community, what happened seemed unimaginable,” says Fox. The situation is, of course, much more ubiquitous than anyone knew – for example, there’s the conviction on 10 counts of USA gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, accused by over 250 women of sexual assault.
Films like The Tale, which is told with such intelligence, period detail and wit that it confounds the simplistic newspaper stereotype of such cases, are part of a growing trend. Patrick Melrose, the new television series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and based on the books of Edward St Aubyn, also tackles child abuse and the adult indifference that sometimes enables it.
“When The Tale premiered [at Sundance in America in January], it was the biggest topic of conversation at the festival,” says Fox. Such an accomplished, mature work might usually have won a prize, “but I think some reviewers and maybe even the judges were triggered by the subject matter.” It is almost a miracle that the film explores such disturbing and grey areas, yet ends up being uplifting and cathartic – because Fox is in control of her own story.
The “child no one noticed” became the director of Beirut: The Last Home Movie and, more recently, the 353-minute television documentary Flying: Confessions Of A Free Woman. Fox’s skills of watching, becoming a chameleon and knowing when interviewees are lying or holding back the truth were learnt long ago.
The Tale opened at Sundance London and is on Sky Atlantic on June 5