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The Most Intense Movie Of The Year Is About Child Sexual Abuse — And It’s Nothing Like You’d Expect


Kyle Kaplan / HBO

Laura Dern in The Tale.

When Jennifer Fox was 13 years old, she entered into a sexual relationship with her running coach. He was 40. They were in love.

At least, that was the story Fox told herself in the years following the end of her time with her coach. It was so central to her life that as she began her career as a documentary filmmaker in her twenties, Fox began working on a screenplay treatment about her experience, to turn it into a movie. Something about her approach never felt right, so she set it aside. But the drive to grapple with her experience was always there, like an itch she couldn’t quite scratch.

It was only when Fox was in her mid-forties, as she began working on a film that involved other women talking about their own stories of sexual abuse, that she suddenly saw her relationship with her coach through a radically different lens.


Kyle Kaplan / HBO

Jennifer Fox

“It was just, like, this snap,” Fox told BuzzFeed News in an interview at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, that sounds like my story. Oh my god, it’s sexual abuse.'”

Fox’s understanding of what happened to her might have stopped there, as she fell into an all too familiar role of a victim of child sexual abuse. Instead, Fox kept asking herself, over and over: Why hadn’t she seen the relationship as abuse before? Why had she been telling herself this other story about her experience for so many years?

The ultimate answer to those questions is The Tale. Fox’s searing autobiographical account of her experience debuted to a stunned and rhapsodic reception at Sundance in January, and premieres on HBO on May 26, as an uncanny (and serendipitous) addition to the country’s ongoing reckoning with abusive sexual behavior in the wake of the #MeToo movement. In the film, Laura Dern plays Jenny, a lightly fictionalized version of Fox, who begins a journey of rediscovering not only how her coach — called Bill in the film and played in flashback by Jason Ritter — coaxed her into their relationship, but how her memories of that time shaped her understanding of it, and of herself.

“I don’t feel like a victim, and I’m not interested in telling that story.”

For Fox, that experience, while unmistakably scarring, was far from a tidy narrative of a sexual predator and his unwitting prey. “I don’t feel like a victim, and I’m not interested in telling that story,” she said. “I wanted to tell what this child created in me. She created the hero I would become just by the way she told herself what happened. That’s a really mind-blowing thing.”

In order to capture that kind of nuance, and so that viewers could truly understand the knotted psychology that led a 13-year-old girl to believe she was in an equal, loving relationship with an adult man, Fox understood instinctively that her approach had to be unsparing. “Sexual abuse is often just this misty [thing],” she said. “You know, they walk into a room and close the door, and you hear sounds, or it’s a hand on a mouth.”

Instead, Fox was determined to painstakingly recreate her experience, from Jenny’s first “dates” with Bill as he groomed her with praise and attention, to the deeply upsetting reality of their sexual experiences together. “There are all these steps that are very brutal, but that’s the way sexual abuse happens, in little tiny increments,” she said. “It’s why I can never call it rape. As far as I was concerned, even though I was a minor and couldn’t technically consent, I thought I was consenting. I’m consenting here. I’m consenting there. I wanted an audience to go through that. … It was really important that we don’t shy away from the truth in all its discomfort.”

Having the courage of those convictions, however, presented Fox and her collaborators with a hair-raising challenge: finding a child actor capable of embodying the complex emotions coursing through the story, and then figuring out how to shoot some of the most squirm-inducing scenes between a child and an adult without traumatizing either of them.


HBO

Isabelle Nélisse in The Tale.

The easiest solution to finding an actor to play the young Jenny would normally be simply to cast someone who was 18 but looked much younger. But when Fox was 13, she said, “I looked like a 9-year-old boy. … I was as far away from Lolita as possible.”

Fox and her casting director kept looking younger and younger, but “even the 13-year-olds in America just weren’t that immature,” she said. At one point, the filmmaker thought she might have found the right actor in the young French-Canadian actor Sophie Nélisse, who had just made a powerful impression as the star of 2013’s The Book Thief. But securing financing for the film took so long that by the time production was ready to start in 2015, Sophie had already aged out of the role.

Which was just as well, since, according to Sophie’s mother Pauline Belhumeur, her daughter wasn’t all that keen on the part to begin with. But Fox was desperate, and she remembered that Sophie’s 11-year-old sister Isabelle was also acting (she’d been in the 2013 horror film Mama). So she called Belhumeur directly and asked if Isabelle might consider the role.


Kyle Kaplan / HBO

Nélisse and Fox on the set of The Tale.

Rather than warn Isabelle about The Tale‘s story, Belhumeur chose to hand the script to her with zero preamble — she didn’t even want her to know Sophie had also been approached about the role. Instead, she felt her daughter should be able to have her own reaction to the material, and not feel any pressure either way. “I knew she was quite mature for her age,” Belhumeur said of Isabelle. “Because [the film’s story] is true, because it needs to be talked about, that’s why I let her even read it in the first place. I knew she could take it, because I knew her.”

After reading the script, the younger Nélisse got on a Skype call with Fox to talk about it, and immediately, Fox understood that she already had a keen grasp of the material. “She had a million questions for me,” said Fox. “‘Is this really true? What was the real Bill like? Why did you do it?’ Like, she really wanted to know about me, the truth, why I wanted to tell the story. She was 11. It gives me goosebumps now.”

More pointedly, Nélisse also had several questions about Jenny’s sex scenes with Bill. “I didn’t really know how it was going to be shot,” Nélisse told BuzzFeed News. “I’d never, like, done things that were like this before.”

“I would never allow my kids, one, to show their own body, or two, to be touched,” added Belhumeur. “If they had wanted to film her real [naked] back, or her to do these things with him, obviously I would have refused them.”

“I was very clear there was no way Isabelle was going to be traumatized by this event.”

Fox assured Nélisse and Belhumeur that there wouldn’t be any nudity of Jenny whatsoever in the film save for the character’s naked back, and that scene, as well as any scenes of intimate physical contact between Jenny and Bill, would be shot with a body double. “Although we hadn’t figured out exactly how [yet], that’s what we went through,” said Fox. “I was very clear there was no way Isabelle was going to be traumatized by this event. We were going to protect her in every way we knew how.”

Those kinds of safeguards are far from guaranteed for child actors; Hollywood still relies heavily on parents and guardians to be the fiercest — and, too often, the only — advocates for their children’s overall welfare. And indeed, Belhumeur’s concerted involvement in how her daughter would be treated on The Tale was born from years of experience of wading through the kinds of offers that can come to a young, in-demand female actor. She recalled that after Sophie decided she wanted to take on more intense roles (like Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape), “people started offering her things about rape.”

For The Tale, however, Belhumeur was confident in both the righteousness of what Fox was attempting, and that Isabelle was capable of handling what would be asked of her. But she also understood that others could question her judgment. “I know people might criticize — you know, like, ‘Why did you let your kid do this?’ But when you know how it’s done, there was really nothing wrong in the doing it itself,” she said. “I’ve had discussions with different directors on other movies for both my girls, and sometimes — a lot of times — you don’t need to see those graphic scenes. In this one, no matter how raw it is, I think they were very important.”


Kyle Kaplan / HBO

Jason Ritter and Elizabeth Debicki in The Tale.

Before he signed on to play Bill, Jason Ritter also wanted to know exactly how Fox intended to shoot Bill’s scenes with Jenny “so that we weren’t traumatizing an entire new person in order to tell a story,” he said. “Even though it’s all acting, I feel like it’s dangerous territory.”

That feeling only became more acute as Ritter began researching his role, largely drawing from correspondence Fox had kept from the real Bill, as well as the memoir Tiger, Tiger by Margaux Fragoso, which chronicled the author’s harrowing and complicated sexual relationship as a child with a much older man.

“It was disturbing,” Ritter said with a deep sigh. “One of the things that was so upsetting about it was how normal it sounded. They appear to care about the person. They are able to give the person some kind of sense of themselves, making them feel special.”

“Jennifer kept on telling me over and over again, ‘He believes this.’”

The maxim that actors cannot judge the characters they’re playing was also constantly front of mind for Ritter, in part because Fox wouldn’t let him forget it. “Jennifer kept on telling me over and over again, ‘He believes this,'” said Ritter. “Throughout the entire experience, when I would have a question, like, ‘Oh gosh, this element is so intense, are you sure?’ She’d go, ‘Yes. That’s what happened — to me. So this is the story that we’re telling.’ … I had to continuously put aside my own feelings.”

That imperative was especially crucial during Ritter’s sexual scenes with Nélisse’s body double (who has asked to remain unidentified). “I was able to just try to feel this affection and love towards her, knowing that when it cuts back, and you see Isabelle’s face, that’s where the horror comes in — not in me mustache-twirling and saying it in a creepy, horrible way,” he said. “It makes you even more angry, because you see how this child was able to compartmentalize this, and 30 years later would be referring to it as a relationship that she had, where they were in love, and it was special.”

For Nélisse’s side of these scenes, Fox and her team established a system aimed at sequestering the actor from any of the harsh details of what was actually happening. First, Fox rehearsed with Nélisse in her hotel, running through generic reactions to what Jenny might be experiencing in the moment, but devoid of context.

“Jennifer said, like, ‘Do, like, if a bee stings you, or if you’re running like a dog,’ stuff like that,” said Nélisse. “That helped a lot.”


Kyle Kaplan / HBO

Nélisse and Fox on the set of The Tale.

Then for the actual shoot, Nélisse stood against a vertical bed, with the camera roughly six feet away and shooting with a tight zoom lens just over Ritter’s shoulder as he spoke sanitized, alternate dialogue.

“She didn’t hear the scene,” said Belhumeur. “She had read them once in the script, but she never heard them on set. She wasn’t even allowed to listen in.”

Belhumeur was present for all of it, along with a representative from the actors union SAG-AFTRA, a psychiatrist, and Nélisse’s on-set tutor. Once her sides had been shot, Nélisse left the set, and then the crew would shoot Ritter’s coverage with the body double — often days later.

“I was really heartened by how protective everybody was on the set with Isabelle,” said Ritter. “Sometimes you see that on a set, where someone’s uncomfortable, and the director or someone is going, ‘Oh, just go with it.’ There was none of that at all on this set.”

Nélisse said she never really talked with the psychiatrist except to go over the legal restrictions for any physical contact between her and Ritter. But if anything, she felt a bit annoyed by all the precautions in place for her. “It felt really kind of overprotective,” she said. “I was like, ‘It’s really OK. There’s no need to have like 100 people on set.’ But it was fine.”


Kyle Kaplan / HBO

Ritter and Nélisse in The Tale.

There was only one scene in The Tale in which Ritter had any appreciable physical contact with Nélisse, a brief sequence where they hold hands while they wait in line to see a movie.

“That was more unsettling than I had anticipated,” said Ritter. “I’ve held kids’ hands before. It’s felt always totally normal and protective and great. To do these scenes knowing what I knew, and holding Isabelle’s hand, all of a sudden, it felt tainted for me. It’s another disturbing visual: You see this man holding this girl’s hand, and you assume, daughter, niece, you know? No one looks twice.” Ritter sighed. “Isabelle was fine with it. She just grabbed my hand like everything was normal. I was the one who was like, I have to put this aside.”

While the production went out of its way to insulate Nélisse, there were no such emotional safeguards for the adult actors, who had to improvise their own coping methods. Beyond generally acting as goofy and easygoing as possible, Ritter made sure to spend a great deal of time with Nélisse and her mother off the set, visiting a local amusement park and science museum, along with his costar Elizabeth Debicki, who plays Jenny’s riding instructor and the person who first introduced her to Bill.

“I needed to make sure that, for my own sake, Isabelle knew me and trusted me.”

“It was equally important for me, I felt like, as it was for Isabelle and her mom,” said Ritter. “I needed to make sure that, for my own sake, Isabelle knew me and trusted me.”

For Nélisse’s part, Ritter’s efforts certainly worked. “Even though Jason is like 30 years older than me, or something like that, we were really close,” she said. “He’s such an amazing person. … He’s the kind of guy that would never hurt anybody.”

But as much as Ritter strived to remain lighthearted during the shoot, “there was a moment where my little survival mechanisms all broke down at the same moment,” he said. “We were running lines, and I just looked at her face, and I just saw that she had grown to trust me, and we liked each other. The idea that such a beautiful thing about children, that they can inherently trust people…” He paused, and took in a deep breath. “The idea that someone could exploit that — I stopped in the middle of running lines. I was just like, ‘I just have to sit down for a minute.’ And it all just kind of poured out of me for 10 minutes.”

“He had huge tears,” Nélisse said. “He was like, ‘How can a person do that?'”

According to Fox, it wasn’t the only time Ritter broke down, either. “He cried many times, actually, when he was even shooting with the body double, when he had to really face what he was doing,” she said quietly. “He’s a very special person.”


Fox completed The Tale by August 2017, two months before the stories containing multiple allegations of sexual harassment and assault against indie film titan Harvey Weinstein plunged the entertainment industry and the country at large into the most extraordinary conversation about sexual misconduct and abuse in a generation. The timing could not have been more fortuitous for Fox’s film, and no one recognized that more acutely than she did.

“I absolutely feel if we had been at Sundance a year ago, I don’t think people would have had the stomach for it,” she said. “I think it’s only because of this conversation that this now can be something that people can actually accept, that this is not only true but important to look at. If it had been last year, people would have just said, ‘I can’t take it. It’s too much. Why did she do it? Let’s just turn away.'”


Chris Pizzello / AP

Nélisse, Ritter, and Fox at the premiere of The Tale at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 20.

This is not to say that The Tale still wasn’t regarded as one of the most intense films ever to play at the festival — just that it also benefited from debuting in a particularly intense moment in history. “When I first read the script, it felt like a sledgehammer of information hitting me in the head,” said Ritter with a mordant chuckle. “But you had already been punched in the face several times by the point you saw the movie, so a sledgehammer didn’t feel as shocking. There was a level of talking about trauma in a way that it’s very hard to talk about, but the more you talk about it, the easier it is.”

“We have to start talking about this honestly,” Fox said. She recalled the moment, just days after The Tale premiered at Sundance, when an old friend stopped her on the street and proceeded to share a story about abuse that she’d said she hadn’t told anyone, including her family. It confirmed for Fox her greatest hope for The Tale, that it could both help its audience understand the vast well of unspoken sexual mistreatment, exploitation, and abuse that has only started bubbling to the surface, and provide those with their own untidy story to tell with a new model for how to start sharing it with their friends and family.

Or a total stranger. “There was this actress that came up to me, and she’s like, ‘Hi. I just wanted to tell you that I’m really impressed with your performance, and that’s exactly how it happened to me. I’m really happy that you were brave to do this movie,'” said Nélisse. “It made me feel so, so good.” •

Adam B. Vary is a senior film reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.

Contact Adam B. Vary at adam.vary@buzzfeed.com.

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Jason Bateman Showed How “Family” Is Used To Excuse The Inexcusable


Saeed Adyani / Netflix

Jessica Walter and Jason Bateman on set while filming Season 5 of Arrested Development.

In the introduction to his recent interview with the cast of Arrested Development, New York Times culture writer Sopan Deb describes the conversation as “freewheeling, at times emotional” with “the air of a family Thanksgiving dinner.” That emotion was sparked by Deb’s question concerning allegations made by Jeffrey Tambor’s costar and assistant that he had sexually harassed them on the set of Transparent. (The allegations emerged during the final days of filming Season 5 of Arrested Development; Tambor has since been fired from and written off of Transparent, which will end after its next season.) Tambor denied any sexual misconduct but admitted, in a Hollywood Reporter interview, to “lifelong anger issues” and behaving improperly on both sets, including one incident that hadn’t been previously reported: a “blowup” on the set of Arrested Development with the actor who plays his estranged wife, Jessica Walter.

Deb asked Tambor whether, given the allegations, he’d be part of future seasons of Arrested Development — to which he responded: “I’d certainly hope so.” At that point, Jason Bateman declared he wouldn’t do another season without Tambor and that “there’s no reason” he shouldn’t be invited back. Bateman downplayed Tambor’s yelling at Walter, despite her repeatedly mentioning how upsetting the experience had been, suggesting, “This is a family and families, you know, have love, laughter, arguments — again, not to belittle it, but a lot of stuff happens in 15 years.”

For many, families are indeed a source of warmth and support. But many families, including the fictional Bluths depicted in Arrested Development, use words like “love” and “loyalty” to mask all matter of toxicity and aggression, both passive and overt.

Family is a construct, and like all constructs, it covers for something darker, and more complex, than we’d like to admit.

When a workplace is facing cuts — job cuts, salary cuts, benefit cuts — the boss will often make a speech to keep up morale. “We’re a family here at [WORKPLACE],” they’ll say. “We stick together.” This is a different sort of messaging than, say, a union — where sticking together becomes a means to argue against, and demand relief from, exploitation. When the message comes from a manager or a boss, “sticking together” means enduring sacrifice. Almost always, that type of sacrifice ensures a better situation for the company rather than the individual.

In cases like these, invoking “the family” of the workplace becomes a means of blunting anger, of sublimating resistance. If you push back, it suggests, you’re not harming a company that benefits from your labor. You’re harming your family. The guilt — the natural responsibility we feel toward family members — is generally sufficient to keep workers in line and resigned to their new fate, whether it means the loss of wages or pension, an increase in hours, or the removal of mechanisms like tenure meant to ensure job stability. Speaking up for yourself? Hurting the family. To call a workplace a family is to elevate the loyalty one should feel to the idea of the company and its members and simultaneously excuse, or flatten, any bad behavior or damage inflicted within its confines.

At its most extreme, the invocation of family has been used to explain why parents ignore sexual abuse, why grandparents look the other way when their child is beaten, why no one told police when a serious crime was committed. In this way, “family” covers for the degradation of children and of elders, wielded as a sort of pass to behave horribly toward one another. Family is an alibi (“I could never do that to him — he’s family”) and an excuse (“Things happen — it’s family”); it is taken up as a shield when convenient and disavowed when not.

Above all, family is a construct, and like all constructs, it covers for something darker, and more complex, than we’d like to admit: that family ties are not the same as love, that blood or legal relation does not necessarily induce compassion, that we are often our worst selves with the people who are automatically, unquestionably bound to us.


Saeed Adyani / Netflix

Walter, Will Arnett, and Tambor as the Bluths in an episode from the upcoming of Arrested Development.

Bateman was gesturing toward that darker side, I think, when he described the cast as family: that for all of the laughter and love that passed between them, there had been some inexcusable shit as well. But that’s the thing about the word: It can be, and has been, used to excuse the inexcusable. It’s one of the ways that Bateman has explained his enduring loyalty to Tambor to himself: He’s the “difficult” member of the family, the one everyone else is always apologizing for. “Families come together and certain dynamics collide and clash every once in a while,” he said later in the interview, after Walters repeatedly attempted to describe how singular the interaction had been in her career.

Bateman considers himself part of this family, but he is a bystander to the larger dynamic of abuse. As he said in a tweeted apology for his comments, “I shouldn’t have tried so hard to mansplain, or fix a fight, or make everything okay. I should’ve focused more on what the most important part of it all is — there’s never any excuse for abuse, in any form, from any gender. And, the victim’s voice needs to be heard and respected. Period.”

Bateman’s use of the term “family” was, as he explained in his apology, smoothing things over — and, by effect, making both himself and others “feel okay.” Yet the ones most harmed by its use are often the victims of the family dynamic — the ones who internalize its logic as a means to excuse their abuser and blame themselves for continued dysfunction. See Walter’s comments, later in the interview, regarding a realization she had as they spoke: “I have to let go of being angry at him,” she said, referencing Tambor. “He never crossed the line on our show, with any, you know, sexual whatever. Verbally, yes, he harassed me, but he did apologize. I have to let it go.”

So often, it’s the person who’s been injured — not the aggressor — who’s asked to move on for the greater good of the family unit.

At that point, Walter turned to Tambor. “And I have to give you a chance to, you know, for us to be friends again,” she said. Family means always giving someone a second chance. Family means letting things go. But so often, it’s the person who’s been injured — not the aggressor — who’s asked to move on for the greater good of the family unit. It’s the child, or the woman, or the teen that’s easy to tease, and it’s their fault that the family doesn’t feel good or natural, that it’s falling apart. It blames the victim not for what happened to her but for her refusal to forget about it.

A television set is not a family. A university is not a family. A startup is not a family. An agent is not your dad. A supervisor is not your sister. And even if they were, that doesn’t excuse shitty behavior that devalues you or your work. Loyalty can be a powerful force, but it is not always a beneficial or productive one, especially when it involves anyone who wields power over you.

In the New York Times interview, Bateman repeatedly spoke for, or cut off, his female costars, all while pandering to the patriarch, in life and fiction, of the family: Tambor. Another male costar weakly chimed in. Yet another stayed largely silent. The matriarch attempted to make herself heard. Her youngest costar tried to assist her. Two cast members were absent altogether — a statement in itself. The dynamic was indeed, as Deb said, like that of a Thanksgiving dinner, in which the sublimated tensions of the family unit, loosened by alcohol or the right instigating question, come to the fore. But that doesn’t excuse Tambor’s actions on set, or Bateman’s within the interview. Instead, it suggests that the dominant family structure — literal or metaphorical — remains patriarchal, frequently manipulative, and, especially to those victimized by it, incredibly (if often invisibly) toxic.

The next time someone describes a situation, or a workplace, or even a group of friends as “like a family,” listen carefully: It could be a tribute to a loving, supportive unit of people not in fact related by law or DNA. But it could just as easily be a red flag that someone has acted, or will act, badly — and an attempt to excuse it. Actually loving someone, and treating them the way “family” is supposed to suggest, doesn’t mean making excuses for them. It means demanding radical accountability. The #MeToo movement has changed the way so many people understand complex, emotionally fraught concepts like abuse and consent. But when it comes to family and the way that idea is wielded, some things have not changed enough. ●

Anne Helen Petersen is a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed News. Petersen has a Ph.D. from the University Of Texas and wrote her dissertation on the gossip industry.

Contact Anne Helen Petersen at anne.helen.petersen@buzzfeed.com.

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