‘The Tale’
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‘The Tale’

Actress offers uncomfortable story as ‘tikkun olam’

Jason Ritter and Isabelle Nélisse star in “The Tale.” (Kyle Kaplan/HBO)
Jason Ritter and Isabelle Nélisse star in “The Tale.” (Kyle Kaplan/HBO)

Jennifer Fox hopes her film, “The Tale,” garners huge ratings numbers for HBO. “I want people to bring their friends together to watch it and discuss it,” she said. “We’ve got all sorts of support, including home discussion and facilitator guides” to help.

But the Jewish writer, director, and actress doesn’t think everyone should be in that audience. “I would leave it up to the parents,” she said in a telephone interview. But she suggests that viewers should be “16 or 17. I wouldn’t go below that.”

Certainly, though, anyone that age or older — including all parents — should watch. It is a heart-wrenching, anger-inducing and very personal story of child sexual abuse and how one woman, writer/director Fox, came to grips with it.

It is part fact, part fantasy — old and young Jennifers have imaginary conversations — and about memory.

As a young girl, Fox, now 59, was befriended and subsequently abused by both her horse riding instructor and her track coach. “I was very happy to have the love and attention,” Fox remembers. “These were esteemed adults I looked up to and idolized and so when [track coach] Bill” — played by Jason Ritter — “started giving me sexual attention, I went forward and didn’t say no.”

Told that her story sounded like the tales told by young Olympic gymnasts, Fox agreed. “It was a gradual manipulation and coercion,” she said. “A child feels loved and special and taken care of with a lot of tenderness. That’s why when the sexuality is introduced, you are not prepared for it in a negative way, because you trust the person so much. It is classic grooming.”

It is not a case of suppressed memory. Jennifer — both the character played by Laura Dern and the real person, at first remembered the events, but not as abuse. That changed — or at least started to change — about 15 years ago.

Fox is a documentary filmmaker. She won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for her 1988 film, “Beirut: The Last Home Movie,” and received an Emmy nod for her 2014 doc, “My Reincarnation.”

She was working on a six-hour series, “Flying: Confessions of a Free Women,” when the truth of what happened hit her. “I was meeting women everywhere, around the world, and no matter what their class, culture, or color, every second woman had a story. As I listened to these sexual abuse stories, they all sounded like mine. When these things happened to me, I called it a sexual relationship; now I had to call it what it was, abuse.” When she had that realization, she said, “I was 45 years old.”

At about the same time, Jennifer’s mom, Nettie (played in the film by Ellen Burstyn) discovers an old report a young Jennifer wrote about experiences she had at summer camp with riding instructor, Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki) and Bill that at least in retrospect sounded suspicious.

“She pushed me to make the film, because she wanted me to face it.”

It was a long and laborious project, in large measure because of the sensitive subject matter. Laura Dern, who plays adult Jennifer, signed on immediately, and that, given her stature in the industry, made it a little easier to obtain financing.

Jennifer Fox (Kyle Kaplan/HBO)

Finding an actor to play Bill was harder. Several were offered the part but turned it down because “they were just afraid of the role. Actually it was Laura, who knew Jason, who suggested him. We pitched him the film and he said he was at a fork in the road. He could either hide and protect himself or stand by his convictions and do the role. He was actually exactly what I wanted because he looks so innocent. He’s the guy you’d never expect. Most abusers are successful, seemingly nice people. I’m so proud of Jason. I thought he did great.”

Casting young Jennifer — the role went to Isabelle Nélisse — was a particularly delicate decision. “She’s an extraordinary young actress,” Fox said. “Her mother and father read the script and asked Isabelle if she was interested. We then Skyped for two hours, and she asked me lots of questions. Her parents felt she was able to handle the subject matter.”

Still, as a precaution, her mother was always on set, along with a psychologist and the Screen Actors Guild representative. With good reason.

The scenes appear graphic, though it is “all artifice,” according to Fox. Thanks to artful and delicate directing, it appears that young Jennifer and Bill have a relationship in front of the camera.

Jason’s scenes are with an adult body double, and the shots of Isabelle often are close-ups of her standing in front of a vertical bed reacting to instructions as innocent as “imagine you’re eating something sweet.”

But viewers don’t know this, and the scenes are head-turning and painful to watch.

On the subject of pain, I asked Jennifer if it was painful for her to revisit this memory. “I wouldn’t call it painful,” she said. “Most people work at jobs they hate. I’m an artist. I struggled to be in artist. It’s a privilege to spend your time investigating something you want to understand, something new about memory and the way we construct memory to avoid trauma.

“I never saw it until I was 45 years old, and that’s shocking. What I learned, when I finally woke up, is that many abused people realize they were abused but don’t admit it until it’s safe. I waited until I was older and strong enough that I could actually tolerate the concept.”

Jennifer grew up in what she describes as “a wonderful Jewish family. My parents were raised as Reform Jews. We celebrated all the holidays, and my dad was really active.”

They were very supportive and really “set on bringing us every experience they didn’t have” — up to and including horse back riding.

“I think part of the reason I was so resilient that eventually I was able to break up with Bill and Mrs. G, I knew that if I lifted my finger my parents would jump in and help me. I think a common misconception is that if something bad like this happens it’s the parents’ fault. This happened in 1973. We were living in a white, affluent suburb, and these people were respected in the community. No one was looking for abuse.”

She attributes at least part of the reason she made this film to her Jewish upbringing. “First of all, my love of the arts, that’s very much a part of Jewish culture.

“Also both my parents all the time talked about tikkun olam, and no matter what you have to give back. This is my tikkun olam.”

“The Tale” premieres on HBO on May 26 at 10 p.m.

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