Director: Sarah Polley,
Watched in: Theater
In the documentary Stories We Tell, director Sarah Polley invites us into her cinematic scrapbook of home movies and family interviews with a playful, warm embrace. The film is both a memoir about her mother and a meta-commentary on the process of making a movie about memory. Beginning with a disarming montage of relatives settling down on chairs and couches for interviews, admitting their shyness and asking Polley if anyone really should care about their family history, the movie immediately establishes a non-threatening atmosphere of trust and familiarity. The story being told here may be unremarkable, but Polley’s deft command of structure, film formats and dramatic layering is polished enough to invite our intimacy. Her honesty is so genuine that when a third act revelation comes along, a revelation not in the story being told but in the method used to tell the story, it has the potential to destroy nearly all the goodwill the film has accumulated up to that point.
Polley grew up the youngest child of a family of five. Her father dabbled in acting and writing but decided to sell insurance to support his family. Her mom was a housewife who also acted and sang, was beautiful and beloved, and who died of cancer when Polley was only 11 years old. Family lore had it there was always something fishy about Sarah’s birth. So, armed with curiosity and a camera crew, she set out to establish, once and for all, whether or not the dad who raised her after her mother died was really her dad. As the story is pieced together through interviews, Super 8mm films, and a script written and narrated by her presumed father, Polley embroiders this tale with tantalizing clues, quirky detours, first-person what-ifs and some very uncanny moments when just the right piece of unearthed old footage is inserted to fill in a gap in the narrative. We may not have cared about Polley’s birth father or her mother’s unfulfilled dreams as an actor before we saw this film, but we do now. This is because Stories We Tell is the title not just of Polley’s film, but of the film we all make of our upbringing. We fashion composites of memories into set pieces, finding a through-line to our own personalities, deleting scenes, re-imagining old material, perhaps even concocting a tidy arc that explains who we are to strangers.
Polley’s film brings this universal template to life, but the liberties she takes with her technique, while delightfully cinematic and self-referencing, gets her into trouble. Without revealing what the what is, the director, as it turns out, is not as trustworthy as we thought or, to be kinder, she has made the mistake of trusting us to know when she is fudging the truth. In interviews the director has stated she was genuinely surprised to realize that some of her creative choices were misinterpreted or, after being divulged late within the film, were simply overlooked by audiences. This crucial misstep, an error of timing rather than intent, breaks a viewer’s tacit bond with her as guide and storyteller on this journey into her personal history. I don’t believe Sarah Polley meant for Stories We Tell to be called, instead, “Stories We Manipulate”, but that’s the impression viewers may be left with after watching her film.