At first blush, Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell seems like a rather self-indulgent project. It’s about the director’s mother—a beautiful, talented, but quixotic woman, an actress, who died of cancer, and left many questions in her wake.
But it’s actually about so many things: It’s about families, in general, and how they inexorably shape our lives. It’s about perspective, and how the same story can morph and shift when told from different angles. It’s about the small lies we tell ourselves, the rationalizations, and the importance of self-mythologizing. And, for you cinephiles out there, it’s a deconstruction of the process of making a documentary film.
Polley, the pretty, but sad-eyed Canadian actress, had already made two exciting narrative films. Her Away From Her, about the painful slow descent of Alzheimer’s, was justifiably critically acclaimed. Her Take This Waltz—a wistful, insightful, sexy film about female desire—was well-received but deserved even more kudos (it made my Top 20 of last year—and probably should’ve been higher).
But with this film, I think she has announced herself as one of the most important young filmmakers working today. Polley pulls back the fourth wall (and later reinserts it, but that’s all I’ll say on that subject) and shows us the interview set-up. Her British actor father, with his wonderfully mournful voice, reads the narration from his own writings. (As a younger man, he was a bit remote. After Sarah’s mother died, he was forced to take on the parenting role—and the two have a closeness that he doesn’t share with his older children.)
“Dad, try that line again,” Polley says, sitting across a plate of glass from him, at the controls of the studio. Any illusion of the spontaneity of the narration is (intentionally) dissolved.
Polley sits down her brothers and sisters, too—all attractive and smart and witty, but some a bit more damaged by familial strife than others—and we watch as she sets up their mics and tells them to tell the story of their mother, in their own words.
There is another figure who comes in about halfway through the film, an outsider of sorts, who brings a completely different perspective, almost creating the sense of parallel universes. This may be the most profound aspect of Polley’s film: The notion that we are sometimes part of each other’s stories without even knowing it.
If I sound like I’m being intentionally vague, well, that’s because I am. Stories We Tell does unfold like a mystery of sorts—there are surprises at every turn and I don’t want to spoil them.
The film is visually arresting, as well. It has a hazy, longing quality that seems to animate memory itself. You’ll be riveted and moved right until the end—although I can’t totally disagree with those who felt the film may’ve hung around for about 15 minutes too many. (There are a few false endings.).
Also, I must confess to being slightly baffled by one of Polley’s narrative strategies. It sent me scrambling to imdb.com to figure some things out. Once I clarified, I gained even more respect for Polley’s film and her process. Three films in, and I would follow her anywhere.