Simply calling ‘Stories We Tell’ a documentary is quite reductive. This is a masterpiece of storytelling and a layered, captivating look back at the lingering effects of 30-year old family secret.
In short: A filmmaker (Sarah Polley) follows rumors that her father may not actually be her biological father – in the process, she uncovers facets of her family and dead mother she had never known. (watch the trailer)
Writer-director Sarah Polley has masterfully crafted a heartfelt and honest recollection of her long-death actress mother Diane Polley, a story that is also a gripping mystery and a thoughtful analysis of memories and stories.
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The simple framework of ‘talking head’ interviews with Diane’s husband, collaborators, friends and children allows ‘Stories’ to present the intriguing idea of how various people remember the exact same person and events. Sometimes these people remember an event exactly the same way – sometimes their recollections differ.
These variances add compelling dimensions to an already dramatic story: that Diane Polley may have had an affair which, in turn, may have resulted in Sarah’s birth. ‘Stories’ further injects greater depth into this drama by recalling the marital circumstances that could have compelled Diana toward infidelity and how this rumored affair continued to affect the Polley family decades after Diane’s death.
It’s worth noting that two of the central characters in this story, Diane and Sarah, do not take center stage. Instead, ‘Stories’ focuses on Diane’s family and friends as they remember their lively, complex and flawed friend, mother and wife.
‘Stories’ is not satisfied with simply finding the answers to Sarah’s lifelong, personal journey. The dramatic tension is totally invested in how Sarah and her family react to the secrets Diane kept. While a question of paternity is the catalyst for this deeply personal journey, ‘Stories’ broadens its scope to address of nature of memories, stories, fidelity and family. Even as Sarah uncovers one truth after another about her mom, ‘Stories’ takes the time to explore how the Polleys absorb these revelations about a woman they thought they knew.
Furthermore, this film isn’t simply an arresting mystery told with the sensibility of a thriller – ‘Stories’ brilliantly takes on the concept of how elusive the truth becomes. Interviews with Diane’s friends & family create a portrait of a complex woman in a complex situation. And despite that fact ‘Stories’ dutifully includes many interviews with Diane’s loved ones, the only person who knew could fill in the gaps, and reveal the whole truth, was Diane Polley. Instead of just conceding in defeat that this mystery can never truly be solved, ‘Stories’ leverages the incomplete knowledge of Diane’s motives and actions into its greatest strength: that stories, by their very nature, are fragmented and subjective accounts of the past.
In short: ‘Stories We Tell’ is a genre-bending work of art – which combines the conventions of documentary, mystery and dramatic narrative – in its relentless pursuit of an elusive truth.