September 7, 2012


Stories are meant to bring us to some larger truth even if the story isn’t 100% accurate.  Fidelity is not a good in and of itself.  There’s complexity to fidelity, both in narrative and in love, and it’s this fascinating combination that provides the dramatic pull in Sarah Polley‘s sweet and thoughtful documentary, Stories We Tell.  In an attempt to explore her own family’s history—in particular, the story of her parentage—she uncovers the difficulties in reconciling her desire to tell the truth and the limitations of any storytelling form.  Her best attempt is to provide a colorful kaleidoscope of remembrances from family, friends, and acquaintances, and at the center is a touching story about a daughter trying to understand her parents, both adoptive and biological.

“It’s an interrogation,” Polley wryly tells one of her siblings at the film’s outset.  The director sets up two storytelling devices: one is a series of “interrogations” (i.e. talking-head interviews) with family and friends of Polley’s deceased mother, Diane.  The other device is Polley’s father and Diane’s husband, Michael, narrating the story from his point of view.  The movie spends the first third setting up the family history, how Michael and Diane fell in love but grew distant, and how their romance was rekindled before Diane died of cancer.  The plot thickens when we learn that Diane had an affair with her director, Harry, a revelation Sarah stumbles upon when she thinks her biological father was one of her mother’s co-stars.  Polley prevents her mother’s affair from coming off as tawrdy by humanizing every single person in the story, and by making sure that not everything is simply from the filmmaker’s point of view.   By using two devices to tell one story, Polley skillfully illustrates her larger point about how difficult it is to find the truth about a series of events, let alone the people who lived through those events, when there’s no single honest way to tell the story.

Stories We Tell shows us from the outset how Polley wrestles with how to impart a deeply personal story and do so with “fairness”.  It’s impossible to be objective when remembering a story (objectivity is the greatest deception of the documentary form), but that’s a good thing.  A dry recitation of facts would rob the film of its humanity even though Polley almost seems to crave the objectivity as an emotional shield.  At one point, she reads an angry e-mail she wrote to Harry, but her recitation of the e-mail is flat and distant. She may occasionally get asked a question by her subject, but she never sits down for a straight confessional about how she feels because as the author of her tale, Stories We Tell is her confessional.  And through the lens of Polley trying to understand her parents, we see something more powerful than a simple monologue or a big flashing message.  There’s an element of therapy in Stories We Tell, and the movie acknowledges us as the voyeur.


It’s Polley’s adherence to complete openness that makes the story feel mature rather than opportunistic.  Polley genuinely wants to understand why her mother would cheat on her father, and how both men feel about the daughter they share even though only one is the biological parent.  There’s nothing exploitative about Stories We Tell.  There’s trust between the filmmaker and her interviewer subjects.  She loves her family, everyone who knew Diane seems to have loved her, and there just doesn’t seem to be any hidden agendas.  No one wants to carry a grudge, and it’s wonderfully refreshing to watch people take a complex situation and handle it maturely.

And that approach has become Polley’s calling card.  Stories We Tell is her first documentary, but it’s perfectly in line with her previous two features, Away From Her and Take This Waltz.  The director has a fascination with the complexities of love and how it can be both selfish and selfless.  There are no tantrums or melodrama.  There’s sadness and resentment, but there’s always a grace note of reconciliation that still defies the simple definition of a “happy ending.”

Likewise, Stories We Tell defies the simple categorization of a documentary because Polley wants to poke and prod the form in order to find its limitations.  At one point, Michael tells her that while Polley can use plenty of documentary subjects and interview them for hours on end, the act of editing it will always reduce it down to the filmmaker’s voice.  Polley rebels against having the film serve only as the story she tells.  Everyone has a story, and she wasn’t the only one affected by her mother’s affair.  The movie isn’t just about Sarah Polley and the people in her life.  It’s about all of our stories—their fidelity, their complexity, their nuance, their weight.  And that’s the beautiful larger truth of Stories We Tell.

Rating: 9.0 out of 10

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