As if adapting a family photo album into a humane Rashomon-esque documentary, Sarah Polley’s multi-faceted and confrontational Stories We Tell lays out the complex history of her family makeup and investigates the seeds of her own existence. Inward-looking, and yet eschewing narcissism, Polley constructs the mostly Toronto-based narrative via inherently nostalgic Super 8 footage, comprehensive interviews with her close relatives and family friends, and an elegantly composed voiceover from the patriarch, Michael. Foreshadowing the conceit of homegrown yet fascinating storytelling of family secrets that would make Ira Glass’s head spin (This Canadian Life, perhaps?), Polley opens the intensely personal film with a quote from Margaret Atwood: “When you’re in the middle of a story, it’s not yet a story.”
From the onset, the genre-bending documentary is aggressively framed; it peeks behind the scenes of siblings’ living rooms, and the sound studio exquisitely sets the tone as Polley’s family members prepare to act as storytellers of oral tradition within the family’s universe. Polley jokes to one of her siblings as the film crew sets up, waiting to film an initial confessional: “We told you it’s a documentary, but it’s actually an interrogation process.” Each family speaks their own language, and as this household is a sprawling clan sprouted from parents who were writers and actors, it’s apt that Polley chose a multi-narrator cinematic personal essay through which to communicate their saga.
The story begins primarily as a deceptively simple profile of Polley’s late mother, Diane, and the relationship she had with husband Michael. Diane was a vivacious soul, reminiscent of a Cactus Flower-era Goldie Hawn mixed with French New Wave icon Jeanne Moreau in appearance and behavior—a would-be actress who was pleased to roll around in the snow with her and Michael’s three children throughout the ’60s and ’70s, yet craved more outlets to express her infectious energy. With Michael being of more stoic and introspective character unable to fulfill his promise as a writer, Diane was disappointed in the frustrated and introverted actor/writer she married and loved; upon being cast in a play in Montreal, Diane leaves for a brief stint, excited about the brief sojourn from Toronto, leaving Michael to become a more engaged father to their two children and reflect on their tumultuous marriage.
After a mirthful reunion during a visit to Montreal, Michael and Diane revived the joy within their marriage; when Diane returns to Toronto, she’s surprised to discover she’s pregnant with Sarah. Life endured until Diane was diagnosed with cancer in the mid ’80s, her spirit crushed, and when Sarah was only 11 years old in 1990, Diane passed away. In the wake of Diane’s death, however, a rumor surfaces within the family—via an eavesdropping son recalling a private conversation Diane had over the phone—that Diane may have had an affair in Montreal and a morbid family in-joke soon becomes an investigation for Sarah to search for a biological father that may not be Michael.
Polley is much more interested in the malleability of memory and the consequential refractions felt throughout her kin rather than telling a linear narrative. This, of course, is the nature of family anecdotes: those tales—wry and often full of absurd coincidences—that are repeatedly told at every family gathering, molded from various perspectives, as if they would evaporate if they weren’t presented and shaped throughout a family’s ongoing history to recollect on the past and reflect on the present. Stories We Tell consistently posits an existential inquiry into the way narratives are framed, and the coping mechanism of selective memory, respectful of, and yet questioning, the contribution of each storyteller (as they’re billed in the credits). Polley often tells relatives what other interviewees said in their interviews, and they react with “I don’t exactly remember it like that” before adding the slight moderation on who said what in which place and when, often adjusting one or two elements of the Who What When Where Why How to reach a fuller vision.
The film’s greatest success is the way it captures the essence of what it means to be a family, despite the fissures in the cracks of its foundation—that sly ethos from which we appreciate, become annoyed, feel guilty, and ultimately understand our relations both socially and genetically. The pieces of film feel intertwined with DNA, and the audience feels welcome yet suitably unnerved while learning the various dynamics and attitudes in this exhaustive and tricky story, which ricochets into new narratives with every new discovery. Stories We Tell continues to weave a sprawling tapestry that, like family, feels so much more significant when considering the context—and Polley unyieldingly layers contexts and perspectives to frame the multiple sides of each situation to uncover ideal truths and question the ethical validity of controlling this history.
Given the inspired mess of introductions and devices that open the documentary, what began as a delicately told marital observation unsurprisingly unfolds as a subversively inventive, mythic portrait of chaotic scenarios leading to potential family entropy. Despite never placing herself in front of the camera to be directly interviewed, Polley is hyper-aware of her own narrative framing, apprehending the tacit balance of perspective and potential deceit that comes with the editorial and filmmaking process. Polley is occasionally seen in the sound studio, listening as Michael reads the voiceover and occasionally interjecting, “Dad, can you go over that line again.” (In one instance he replies, “Aw, really? But I was being so real.”) Shockingly, these tools of self-reflexivity immerse instead of alienate, forging the audience to become part of the experience of this family and feel at once warm and intellectually tickled.
Stories We Tell hints at a meta-film without ever abandoning the genuine spirit and search that oozes with the perfectly calibrated balance of headiness and poignancy. Because of this, and Polley’s exploration of her late mother, the film feels special in the most alarmingly personal way, and not only because it’s so obviously close to Polley. If the conclusion is a rambling, unwieldy study on the responsibilities of storytelling, it’s because the filmmaker can’t help herself—and appropriately so, considering the sloppy intimacy of this reality she’s turning into a nonfiction film. In a protracted and devastatingly powerful finale, she exposes, once again, the filmmaking devices and editing tricks that serve to deceive and yet elicit truth and pathos nonetheless. As an actress, student, and practitioner of film, Polley uses the tool of cinema as a form of therapy, as a way to rationalize and gain deeper, satisfying clarity for how the world of her family functions, and we’re pleased to lie on the couch and silently weep along through each bittersweet realization.