• Content warning: This story discusses child sexual abuse.
Jennifer Fox needed to tell The Tale.
'We tell ourselves stories in order to live', wrote Joan Didion in 1979 – "and I agree with that profoundly," says Fox. "Storytelling is a way to make sense of the chaos of life, and the terror we feel in the face of that chaos."
An accomplished documentarian, The Tale is Fox's first dramatic, scripted feature – but it's also her own story. The film, starring Laura Dern as Fox, depicts her investigation into an experience of sexual abuse she suffered at age 13 at the hands of her running coach, Bill, a man nearly 30 years her senior.
The film begins with her mother (Ellen Burstyn) discovering a short story Fox wrote about the events at 13 – the first iteration of The Tale - which described the experience as a loving relationship. From there, Fox tries to track down Bill and his lover, Mrs G, as she struggles to make sense of her conflicting memories, and the way time has smudged the truth into something murky and unrecognisable.
The elasticity of the truth in storytelling makes up the thematic backbone of The Tale, but it's also the prism through which Fox had processed the trauma of the events all those years ago. "I firmly believe that when I wrote The Tale at 13, that was my unconscious way to make sense of something that was very hard to make sense of, inside of me.
"I am a film-maker for that reason," she says. "I go on this journey to try to understand the un-understandable; why did I tell myself only part of a story that happened to me at 13? What did I do with the other part of the story, and why?
"The film is not really about 'did it happen?' because I never forgot it in any way. I remember everything that's in the film – I always remembered – it's just that I'd preferenced part of it, and put in some sort of grey, dark hole, the other part."
The Tale is often difficult to watch, particularly as Dern, as Fox, comes closer to understanding just how serious the abuse was. Told partly in flashback, the film often opts for a surrealist depiction of memory, particularly when Dern literally communicates with – and confronts – her younger self, played with affecting vulnerability by young actress Isabelle Nelisse. One of the film's most striking moments comes early on when Fox, who initially remembers herself as a mature 13-year-old, discovers a photo of herself looking far more childlike, and the teenaged actress playing her in flashback is suddenly replaced by the wide-eyed, baby-faced Nelisse.
Nelisse's casting is a gamble, particularly in the context of one of the film's greater risks: portraying the way 13-year-old Fox believed she was truly in love with Bill (Jason Ritter), and balancing that against the deep sickness adult Fox feels – and soon remembers feeling – as she starts to recognise the experience as abuse. It's a bold cinematic choice that may not have landed if it were not clear that this is Fox's own story.
"As a child, I was raised to believe that pain isn't necessarily bad for you," she says. "[That] in order to achieve as an athlete you have to have pain.
"When I faced the pain of sexuality, I didn't necessarily think I had to run from it. It was simply the price of admission. And, also, I never forgot that I hated the sex, or the sex was revolting, or that I threw up [afterward], it's just that, in my child mind, that was the price of the attention, the love, and a gateway to adulthood. [It was] why I didn't perceive it as abuse."
One of Fox's greatest achievements is the extraordinarily nuanced performance she draws from Laura Dern. The actress expertly and empathetically captures the frightening realisation that one's memory has failed them, and the audience feels her confusion and frustration every step of the way. Playing Fox would have been an undoubtedly unusual task, and the director has high praise for how Dern navigated it.
"She's fantastic, very collaborative, she's always thinking," says Fox. "We decided very early that the character she was creating wasn't exactly me, it's a character, and she was going to bring things that weren't me to the table.
"On the other hand, there are things that she picked up that I didn't even know she picked up from me. I remember when we were rehearsing the teaching scene she came in and was talking to the student actors and I did a double-take because she was behaving exactly the way I talk to students."
Without spoiling it entirely, the ending of The Tale is one of its most impactful elements – but by no means should viewers expect a clean, Hollywood finish. It's more complex and continuous than that, and therefore more true to life, particularly for Fox and her relationship with the story.
"The process in me doesn't finish, because when you take a film out to the world, as you meet audiences, that also starts another process," she says. "It goes on and on and on, and the film is not the end of my journey with this event. It goes on into the future."
As many creatives will recognise, Fox is processing her life through her art. "The biggest practice in my life is film-making," she says. "My art is the way I understand the world. So the investigation of memory, and the investigation of the stories we tell ourselves to survive, I did through making this film. And of course, I turned the focus on myself to do that."
Who: Director Jennifer Fox
What: The Tale
When: Monday, July 2, 8.30pm
Where: Sky SoHo
Also: thetalemovie.com contains resources and support for those dealing with sexual abuse.