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‘Stories We Tell’ more successful as an intellectual exercise than as heartfelt, familial emotion

stories we tell poster

Stories We Tell

Directed by Sarah Polley

Written by Sarah Polley

Canada, 2012

How can a documentary ever satisfactorily tell us the truth? No matter what the topic of debate is, how can the filmmakers relay to us the supposed truth of a situation without any form of bias or creative control poking through? Hell, what is truth? Yes, such heady philosophical notions and questions are present in each moment of Sarah Polley’s newest film Stories We Tell, a documentary of sorts, in that it’s structured around real lives and real people. But the movie is not shy about showing us how certain conversations, meetings, and moments are recreated, or where the boom microphones or the cameras are located, or even the process of recording voiceover narration. As an experiment, it’s absolutely compelling. Its attempts at emotion are slightly less successful.

Ostensibly, Stories We Tell is the story of Polley’s mother, actress and casting director Diane Polley, who passed away when Sarah was 11. She gathers her gruff British father Michael (who narrates the movie, as seen at various moments), her brothers, her sisters, close friends, and more to describe this vibrant, energetic, lovely woman who died of cancer far too young. But then, the story takes a turn—one that all assembled are aware of, but we may be caught off guard by—as it’s slowly, patiently revealed that Diane and Michael had a period of acrimony in their relationship, pushing her to the arms of another man. And that dalliance is what resulted in Sarah being born, not marital relations. So Michael may not be her biological father? But does that make him any less important in her growth as a person, more mental than physical?

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Perhaps what ends up muting the emotional impact of Stories We Tell is the honesty and forthrightness on display from Polley, Michael, and the assorted family members. Polley herself didn’t find out the truth of her parentage until she was an adult, and Michael found out the details even later on, but there are few flashes of concern that are visible in the film’s participants, dubbed in the credits as storytellers. At the outset, each of Polley’s siblings expresses a bit of worry, almost to the point where they wonder what they were thinking agreeing to be in the film. But then their guards all seem to come down and, a couple of striking moments aside, they describe their lives before Sarah came into the world (and before Michael married Diane, whose first marriage made headlines because of its bitter, acrimonious ending) in a fairly straightforward fashion.

Of course, the operative word in that sentence is “seem.” Once Polley delves further into the identity of her real father, and brings that man (a film producer) onscreen, he begins to claim ownership of the story. Whatever story there is, to Sarah, to her family, to any of us watching this, he believes it’s his to tell. Within the framework of Stories We Tell, it’s hard not to react to this man’s presumed entitlement and think poorly of him. In this movie, he’s a pivotal character—if “character” is the right word—but he’s not nearly as important as Sarah or, especially, Michael, easily the closest we have to a heroic lead figure. However, is this producer wrong? Of course not, because each of us thinks our own story, or our presence in someone else’s story, is the correct version, the one worth telling to others. On this metatextual level, Stories We Tell is endlessly worth discussing, a perceptive look at how there may be no single truth, but only something shared that sometimes inches toward a collective accuracy.

If, then, there is a problem with Stories We Tell, it’s that the metatextual elements become far more engrossing than the text itself. Michael, he of such a craggy, expressive, worn face, is maybe not the hero of the piece, but his hangdog look allows him to earn our sympathy. He may not have been the idealized white knight Diane imagined she was marrying, but learning that he was essentially lied to for years about his connection to Sarah, as well as realizing how imperfect his marriage was (one he already knew was on slightly shaky ground), makes Michael almost pitiable. Once we meet the other man in Diane’s life, this producer named Harry, though, it’s as if we shift into a different gear. The movie doesn’t shift, immediately, into a higher gear, so much as a gear in a totally different vehicle. The two halves of Stories We Tell are, by themselves, intelligent and engaging. Together, they don’t totally fit.

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That said, after three films, this much is clear: any movie directed by Sarah Polley must be considered an event any cinephile would do well to pay attention to. Her debut film, Away From Her, remains the best of the trio, but Take This Waltz and Stories We Tell are clearly products of a strong authorial voice. She’s as close as we have in cinema to a writer as honest and unassuming, as much a student of human behavior, as Alice Munro. Stories We Tell, equally about why we tell stories as much as it is what we’re telling and what we choose to leave out, is at its best when it takes a scientific approach to the art of filmmaking as well as the shakiness of the truth. As a whole, it’s imperfect, but perhaps a perfect whole would be closer to a lie.

— Josh Spiegel


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