When writer/director Jennifer Fox set out to make a movie about her real-life experience with childhood sexual abuse, she knew it wouldn’t be an easy process.
“This was not meant to be a movie that’s easy to watch,” Fox tells PEOPLE. “I just felt I could tell this story in the way that can help millions and millions of people.”
Fox’s HBO film The Tale chronicles a woman’s (Laura Dern) powerful investigation into an adolescent relationship with two coaches: a horse riding instructor named Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki) and her friend and track coach, Bill (Jason Ritter). After a letter from her childhood resurfaces, she’s forced to reexamine the relationships and uncover hard truths about her past.
“I really wanted to show the complexity of the manipulation,” she says. “A child can be manipulated to believe that an adult loves them and appreciates them, is listening to them, is making them feel special. And that these tiny little steps can go towards a child accepting the unacceptable.”
She adds, “It’s as if I preferenced the love and blacked out on the abuse in order to survive and thrive and go on and become an adult in the world.”
The film received a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival and has gone on to earn two Emmy nominations, including best TV movie and a leading actress nod for Dern.
But accolades aside, Fox says she’s been overwhelmed by the positive response she’s received from fellow sexual abuse survivors.
“I am grateful that I was able to do something in which I could tell people that it’s okay to speak about this, that the pain is tolerable,” she says. “We can hold our hands together and say, ‘This happened. We have to face it. And it’s time to really come out and change the conversation.’ “
Looking back, Fox says making the film has been a healing experience.
“I think the process was very powerful for self-healing and it’s also powerful to use one’s story to help the world.”
The Tale is available to watch on HBO Go and HBO Now.