Sundance: Laura Dern Film Featuring Child Rape Sparks Walkouts, Standing Ovation

Laura Dern and Isabelle Nélisse in The Tale (2018, Gamechanger Films)
Gamechanger Films

The Laura Dern-starring drama The Tale, which follows the real-life story and the sexual abuse of writer-director Jennifer Fox, reportedly caused drama during its Sundance Film Festival debut over the weekend with some viewers cheering the film while others stormed out of a viewing session.

The film constantly oscillates between an adult Fox and a teenage Fox, played by 14-year-old Isabelle Nélisse, who enters a sexual relationship and is repeatedly raped by her 40-year-old running coach named Bill, played by Jason Ritter.

The gruesome and shockingly detailed scenes depicting a 13-year-old girl being raped by a 40-year-old man prompted several people to walk out of the screening Saturday at the Eccles Theatre, according to the Daily Beast.

The most disturbing scenes between young Fox and Bill were shot with actor Jason Ritter acting out his lines and physical encounters with an adult body double and actor Isabelle Nélisse recording her facial expressions and audible reactions to being raped, days apart.

The Daily Beast details some of the more chilling scenes from the film and how the child actor was coached by her director:

It starts with Bill getting Jenny to cuddle with him under a blanket. He says she deserves better than silly young boys; that he wants to “save” her from them. He phrases things in a way to make her think it’s her idea, like to take her top off, giving her the false comfort of an agency she doesn’t have.

We see them make out and it is grotesque. We see him, over multiple scenes that take place over a series of weeks, attempt to penetrate her. “We have to keep stretching you open, slowly,” he says. And then again: “No young boy would do this for you.” We see her give him a blowjob when it doesn’t “fit.” Eventually it happens, the camera switching between her face and his as it does.

The film ends with a disclaimer that the sex scenes were shot using an adult body double. Nelisse, who was 11 at the time of filming, only shot the dialogue parts of the scene, which are graphic in their own right. Fox would coach her on how to react properly to the pain of losing one’s virginity: ”Act like you’ve been stung by a bee.”

Fox, according to reports, was in tears as she received a standing ovation just moments before a post-screening Q&A session with critics and journalists.

“I was talking to women around the world and started to hear my story (of sexual abuse),” Fox told the crowd. “It didn’t matter the class, it didn’t matter the color, it didn’t matter the nationality — anecdotally, it was like one in two women had a story. It blew my cover, because this event that I had called a ‘relationship’ all of a sudden wasn’t personal, wasn’t individual, but was actually universal.”

The film has been hailed as a masterpiece, debuting smack in the middle of a roaring conversation and cultural shift that has seen some of Hollywood’s most powerful men accused of sexual abuse over a period of decades.

“Jennifer Fox’s Autobiographical ‘The Tale’ Is A Movie For The #TimesUp Moment – Sundance Studio,” Deadline raves of the film.

“Sundance: ‘The Tale’ speaks to #MeToo movement with chilling child rape drama,” a USA Today headline reads.

Follow Jerome Hudson on Twitter @jeromeehudson