In the world of movies, there are, of course, different levels of success. There is the blockbuster kind, all about breaking records at the box office, and there is the acclaim kind, where a film might not be a massive financial hit but is an awards contender from the moment it's released. Understandably, most filmmakers want their movies to fall in at least one of those categories. For The Tale director Jennifer Fox, though, success for her film was simply about whether or not it'd actually get seen.
"I was afraid even from the minute I started to write this film that it would never have an audience," explains Fox, speaking over the phone in late May. "I was afraid that people would just say, 'I don’t want to look.'"
The director's fear was warranted. The Tale, premiering on HBO May 26, is a story about ongoing sexual assault that's based on Fox's real experiences as a 13-year-old in the 1970s. It's an incredible film, but also so painful in its portrayal of child rape and abuses of power that, at times, it's simply impossible to watch; seeing the thoughtful, trusting Jennifer (Isabelle Nélisse) be taken advantage of by her running coach (Jason Ritter) and horseback instructor (Elizabeth Debecki) is painful beyond measure. Scenes of the adult, present-day Jennifer (Laura Dern) revisiting her childhood memories and beginning to process the abuse are just as hard to endure.
And the fact that it's Fox herself telling this story — she wrote and directed the film — adds to the nearly-physical discomfort one feels watching The Tale unfold. When the movie premiered at Sundance in January, it earned rave reviews but was quickly deemed the festival's most controversial flick; now, with its HBO premiere, there will undoubtedly be an even greater number of people unsure whether or not The Tale should even exist. Let alone whether they can work up the courage to actually give the movie a chance.
But Fox isn't worried about those people. She's fully aware that because The Tale is a difficult film about sexual abuse of a minor — "the greatest taboo on the planet", as she describes it — that means it's not going to be a huge hit or gain universal praise. She never expected otherwise. All that matters to her is that she got to tell her story, and that in doing so, there are now some people, at least, who feel a bit less alone than they might've before.
"What I’m hearing... 'is it’s time to look.' Or, 'we can no longer look away, and this film has changed my life and changed my understanding of how these events happen and what they are,'" says Fox, about the conversations she's had with viewers of The Tale. "I’m just grateful to be part of this movement and literally have opened up yet another box in the history of hurt against girls and women."
Although making The Tale was indeed cathartic for Fox — "as an artist, my way to make sense of [the events] is to make a story and make art out of it," she explains — she didn't make the film just for her own benefit. "I am not doing it just to heal myself, otherwise I wouldn’t make things that have to be shown to the world," she explains. "For me, it’s a double edged push of making a story that can help and other people can relate to and go on a journey with, and at the same time, working with things that I’m grappling with. The two are simultaneous."
Since the movie's premiere, Fox says, both women and men have come up to her to share stories about their own past abuse, some of which occurred decades ago but has just been recently understood — much like what happened with Fox herself. "It just takes a long time for people to come to terms and to acknowledge the trauma that they’ve gone through, and I think sometimes it’s because it’s too much to acknowledge it," the director says. "Until you’re strong enough to actually think it, things just stay pushed down in your psyche."
Now, however, more people than ever are opening up about their experiences due to the events of the past several months, and Fox thinks that's a major reason that The Tale was picked up by HBO and will now b seen by many. "Frankly, if it wasn’t for MeToo and Time’s Up and what was cracked open by Harvey Weinstein and the things that he did that were opened to the world... this film might’ve been intolerable to most people," the director explains. "If the movement hadn’t broken open people’s willingness to talk about sexual trauma, we wouldn’t have been able to talk about child sexual abuse."
As hard as it is to watch The Tale, any doubt one may have previously had about its necessity disappears after the credits roll. Fox's movie is essential, a searing look at memory and assault that is simply unlike anything else. It may never be a "hit" in the traditional sense, but it is doing something else that most other movies never can: allowing a topic that affects millions of people but is rarely discussed to finally be "cracked open to talk about and understand in a way that was never before in history," as Fox says. And for the director, at least, that's more than enough of a success.