Sarah Polley’s documentary ‘Stories We Tell’ examines families, memories, and what is perceived as truth. Every family has a unique story to tell. When Polley explores hers, she finds the occasional skeleton or two. Her sister Joanna in the film sums it up best, “I guess I have this sort of extinctive reaction, like who f***ing cares about our family?” It’s a legitimate question you’ll ask yourself as the theater darkens minutes into the story. As it unfolds, it plays out like a thriller with surprising twists. Polley sits down with family and friends. She asks each of them to tell the story of her mom from the beginning. Each one remembers the story differently and that’s the fascinating aspect of it all.
This is a challenging review since I don’t want to reveal too much. The pleasure of ‘Stories We Tell’ is watching it unfold. As the interviews progress, we get to piece the puzzle together along with Polley. Polley is an accomplished actress who has recently embarked on a promising journey into filmmaking. She has received critical acclaim as a director for her Oscar-nominated film ‘Away From Her’ starring Julie Christie and ‘Take This Waltz’ starring Michelle Williams. Polley’s mother Diane was a vivacious, free spirit with a zest for life. She was also a stage actress and when you see Super 8mm footage of her, you see where Polley gets her looks and acting bug.
The film includes a narration performed by the affable Michael who happens to be her father. He reads page after page of his side of the story in a proper English accent. Polley looks on as he reads the lines from a sound booth. When he flubs a line, Polley asks him to repeat it. He quips to her, “What a vicious director you are.” With a gentle but stone-cold demeanor, Polley gets to the heart of the story. Diane met Michael while both were performing in the same play. They fell in love, got married and raised a family together. Later, Diane took a part in a play in Montreal and by the end of the show’s run, she’s pregnant again. This is where the story gets interesting. Sarah is the baby from this pregnancy.
Polley’s brothers and sisters would joke around the dinner table that she looked nothing like her father Michael. There are good reasons why this is so but elaborating any further would spoil it for you. Polley cleverly shows this family secret to paint a broader picture about history and memory. These diverse memories come together to solve the riddles in ‘Stories We Tell.’ In a way, Polley is also paying respects to her mother too. We hear stunning details about her life and how everyone adored her. They still get teary-eyed remembering her. You can feel the love all the kids had for her. Ultimately, they just wanted her to be happy. Diane died in 1990 from cancer when Sarah was only 11.
Her siblings are never mean-spirited and have a good sense of humor. There is home movie footage of Polley as a child. She looks innocent and seems happy growing up. Michael was a good father and explains how important she was to him when Diane passed away. You’d think that as he reads page after page of his side of the story that it would come off as patronizing. On the contrary, as a trained actor, he brings an emotional resonance to the documentary. Polley makes you look at the documentary style of filmmaking in a different light. To a degree, history in movies is fabricated. It makes you wonder about documentaries too and how much the filmmaker actually relies on fact over artistic merit.
‘Stories We Tell’ is an extraordinary documentary and should not be missed. Now available on DVD and digital download. Visit the documentary’s website for more details http://www.storieswetellmovie.com/.