“Stories We Tell” is a captivating and deeply personal documentary that plays with subjectivity. In fact subjectivity and narrative discrepancies is one of the film’s main theme. Its narrator is Michael Polley, who throughout the movie is being interviewed by his daughter, Canadian actress and filmmaker Sarah Polley. Establishing that she is not going for a straightforward narrative, the film shows talking to her dad during his recording session as though the movie is about the making of the movie itself. Another interview subject speaks directly to her saying this probably breaks the fourth wall. Yes, it absolutely does and all the better for it.
The movie is combines old family videos, re-enactments, and interviews with various members of the Polley family. They are briefly introduced with just their first name so it is a bit difficult to tell who is who exactly in the family tree, but they are all asked the same question: can you tell the whole story in your own words? The story in question concerns the relationship between Sarah’s parents who were actors just like her.
Different people will always give different accounts of the same event, however all of the interviewees agree Sarah’s mother Diane was a fun person at parties, who had a good laugh, and a contagious personality. She met her future husband Michael at a play, in which he played a domineering character, which was unlike who he was in real life. Despite him being more of an introvert, they got married, had kids, and settled down in Toronto where Michael gave up acting to help raise the children.
Yet Diane still craved excitement and in 1978 went to Montreal to act in a play. Diane apparently hated living in Toronto, where the philosophy was you live to work, whereas in Montreal you work to live. Her marriage to Michael had gone stale over the years, like with many marriages, but her participation in the play helped rekindle their relationship. Yet after coming back to Toronto she became very worried after learning she was pregnant. She considered an abortion as she was then 42 and thought at that age the baby could have Down syndrome. Good thing she changed her mind, as the baby turned out to be Sarah Polley.
This is where the big twist is slowly revealed. Years after Diane’s death from cancer, Sarah uncovers a major family secret concerning her mother. It began as a joke among siblings, which turned out not to be a joke as Sarah dug for the truth by interviewing old friends of her mother. Once she learned the whole truth she would have been happy to keep it in the family, but a reporter uncovered the story and as Sarah Polley was now a celebrity thanks to her appearance in hit films like “Dawn of the Dead,” the whole world would end up knowing.
Instead Sarah convinced the press to let her tell the story herself, or rather have her entire family tell the story as best they can. This is against the wishes of one interview subject, himself an actor and storyteller, who says Sarah would have final cut on the story.
It is indeed interesting for a director to tell a story that directly involves her while interviewing people who have known her for years. This has shades of “Rashomon” and the work of Michael Moore; only it feels less manipulative as the interviewees respond frankly to the interviewer without being cut.
There are many ways this story could have been told, but by shooting it and telling it the way she did, Sarah Polley is not only telling an intriguing story, she is raising questions about the unreliability of memory and the nature of storytelling. This will entertain you and make you think. A rare treat.
(“Stories We Tell” is out on DVD and Blu-Ray.)