Friday, December 20, 2013
Stories We Tell Movie Review
Actress and filmmaker Sarah Polley turns the camera on her family’s history and, by extension, herself in her documentary Stories We Tell. She starts by asking, in a series of on camera interviews with various family members and friends of her mother’s, to tell their version of the story to her as if she didn’t already know it. They all have an initial hesitation and some of her brothers and sisters even suggest that they don’t really see their family’s story as particularly unique or worth presenting to the world.
The documentary is comprised of first and foremost those several interviews with her two brothers and two sisters, her father, two men her mother, Diane, had affairs with, and some close friends. The other two (or three, depending on how you separate them) elements are a voice recording of Polley’s father reading his memoir and both staged (with actors) and actual historical Super 8 footage of the family from the 60s through the 80s. So the story builds and builds, painting a portrait of Polley’s mother as an energetic free spirit – an actress who loved her social life and gallivanting. Slowly we begin to see where it’s headed: the man Polley has believed was her father is, in fact, not. Her mother got pregnant by another man, also interviewed for this film and who maintains a relationship with his daughter today. No one in the family knew, although there were years of family jokes that Polley’s red hair was evidence of a different father.
Polley may have made this film as a way of exorcizing some personal demons, but she never makes it about herself. It’s like a very complicated and public form of family therapy. But the documentary achieves something so much greater than telling the story of one family. It’s a document of storytelling in general. It reveals the ways everyone approaches stories, even factual ones, differently. One person’s version of events doesn’t always mesh with another’s. There may even be outright conflict. And the responses to the facts vary greatly, as well. The common wisdom in this family was that Polley’s father was a fellow actor starring in a play with Diane in another city away from home, but it turns out to be a red herring. The man who is revealed as her biological father has a fascinating take on truth versus fiction. He seems to feel that everyone else’s version of events is skewed, but that his is the true objective version because of the love shared between him and Diane. This is perhaps a form of denialism and way of reconciling the fact that Diane never abandoned her family to be with him.
What sets Stories We Tell apart from others of its kind, and what is beginning to distinguish Polley as a filmmaker, is the care she takes in presenting her subject. Her mother is presented as an enigma – a woman that her family and friends perhaps never knew as well as they thought. But Polley treats her mother and the film’s subject matter with respect. Considering her status as a recognizable actress, it would have been easy to make this film about her, but she hardly reveals her own thoughts or reactions to past events. She never interviews herself or appears on camera except as a secondary subject. This is one of the most fascinating pieces of filmmaking I’ve seen this year, documentary and narrative alike. It’s touching, almost tragic, and occasionally quite funny.