Review: Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley’s third film is a stunning documentary that purposefully blurs the line of “objective” filmmaking.

Generally, when I post a review, it comes at least a couple of days after I’ve actually watched the film. Sometimes (maybe most times) that’s just out of laziness; others, it’s because I genuinely need time to collect my thoughts, to process exactly what I want to say about a movie. That’s certainly the case with “Stories We Tell,” an astonishing, indelible documentary that refracts out in so many different directions that it’s difficult to decide where even to begin talking about it. It resonates so deeply, so personally, that almost the only way to respond to its brutal honesty is to start talking about yourself and your own experience of the material – the pure honesty and frankness of its subjects is enough to send the entire audience spiraling down an emotional rabbit hole.

The film, made by Sarah Polley (and I very purposefully say “made” rather than “directed,” for this is that rare film that seems to have sprung entirely from one person’s psyche), opens in a fairly standard format: we are introduced, in a series of familiar talking-head shots, to a number of interviewees, most of whom appear to belong to Polley’s immediate family. Many of them express bafflement regarding the film: whatever story they are supposed to be telling, they can’t understand why Polley would want to film it, or perhaps more accurately, why anyone else would want to watch it. But then they start talking about Sarah’s mother Diane, and bemusement quickly gives way to compulsion. Polley’s siblings, her father Michael, the various collection of family friends and colleagues: all of them simply start spewing out words when it comes to describing the outgoing, vivacious Polley family matriarch. Late in the film Sarah refers to her mother’s early death of cancer as a “tsunami,” and it seems an accurate representation of the force of Diane’s presence.

Of course, a tsunami connotes not just raw power but destruction. The primary damaged parties appear to be Michael (a respected theatrical actor in Canada, whom “Slings and Arrows” fans should know well) and Sarah, although the reasons are not immediately clear. Michael, both in his interviews and live readings from his memoir, expresses regret for a not entirely satisfactory marriage – much more of an introvert than his open, friendly wife, he believes she fell in love not with him, but a character he once played on the stage – with the kind of brutal self-awareness that one can only achieve after a long, weary life. And Sarah… well, at age 18, Sarah was dealt the shuddering blow of learning that Michael was not, in fact, her biological father.

The fallout of her mother’s affair occupies most of the first half of Polley’s film, as the young actor/director recounts her hesitant pursuit of her birth father. For this section, “Stories We Tell” is remarkable less for its method than its exceptionally candid subjects. But something shifts around the hour mark: even though the personal mystery is solved, Polley keeps going. Where a lesser film might be content with telling a good story, “Stories We Tell” keeps its subjects talking past the finish line, until suddenly they are discussing the making of the very film they are in. Everything collapses in on itself, the line between story and storyteller blurring as Polley relentlessly questions not just the factual incidents that made up her mother’s life, but the instinct of all those around her to relate them. She is not interested in the stability of a traditional ending, but the ephemeral, conflicting fog of memory.

For the arrival of her birth father, and his rather romantic perception, muddies what had been a fairly straightforward portrait of Diane Polley. This man (I will leave his identity a surprise) brings a tale of love found and lost, turning Diane and himself into the protagonists of some tragedy. But not everyone sees it quite that way: Michael seems to see everything as a far more mundane marital melodrama, while the other children display varying levels of sympathy for their mother’s choices. But whether they are hurt, angry, compassionate or empathic, what is clear is that no one was unaffected: a devastating, wordless montage of each subject’s tearful face shows that as abstract and elusive as the “truth” of Diane Polley’s life might be, the end result is as intensely immediate as can be.

If “Stories We Tell” did nothing else but demonstrate the extraordinary, rippling emotional wallop of an “ordinary” life, it would be great. But Sarah Polley, in her third feature and first documentary (after the superbly affecting “Away From Her” and last year’s “Take This Waltz”) displays a kind of wit in her form that is the basis of a transcendant non-fiction masterpiece. In addition to her interviews, Polley weaves in old Super 8 footage from her family’s early life, giving a kind of ghostly presence to the past. But a cursory examination reveals something fascinating: not all the footage is “real.” For many of the 8mm sequences, Polley has hired actors to improvise re-enactments of Diane’s life. There’s an insecurity to the film’s form that matches the subjectiveness of its recollections.

At the same time, Rebecca Jenkins, the actress “playing” Diane, evokes Sarah’s mother so vividly (and impressively, without a sound), her spirit seems to cut through all the equivocations and misgivings. And that is ultimately the triumph of “Stories We Tell:” never before have I seen a film that so nimbly educed the delicate balance between the transient nature and concrete impact of storytelling. Other filmmaker-essayists, such as Ross McElwee, have been interested in this paradoxical idea, but Polley takes it a step further by including so many voices in her film besides her own. Though “Stories We Tell” is her movie, and her story, everyone is a storyteller.

Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars

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