On paper, Stories We Tell sounds like an epic overshare: Sarah Polley, the Canadian actress who directed Away From Her and Take This Waltz, turns her camera on a network of close and distant relatives, encouraging them to ramble on about the complicated relationship between her parents. “Who fucking cares about our family?” Polley’s sister asks early on—and it’s tempting, at the onset anyway, to share her skepticism about the universal appeal of the project. Yet there’s much more to Stories We Tell than navel-gazing. Polley’s fledgling foray into documentary filmmaking is also an investigative mystery, a real-life soap opera, and—most compellingly, perhaps—a searching “interrogation” (the director’s word) of the hows and whys of storytelling itself.
From the opening scenes, in which the interviewees break the fourth wall to address their interviewer, it’s clear that this will be an especially self-reflexive glimpse into personal history. While his daughter, the filmmaker, watches from behind the glass of a sound studio, British-born actor Michael Polley reads passages from his memoir. These eloquent musings will blend with, and occasionally contradict, the testimonials of the film’s other talking heads. The narrative they’re collectively relaying is a whirlwind, decade-spanning romance—the tale of how Michael wooed and married a fellow thespian, the stage actress (and later casting director) Diane MacMillan, with whom he fathered several children. There’s a big twist lurking at the heart of the story, a revelation that sent shockwaves through the entire family. Though Polley has spoken publicly about this identity-shaking discovery, Stories We Tell may work best for those who go in blind, and stumble onto the secret organically.
Haunting every frame of the film is Diane, who died of cancer two days after Sarah’s 11th birthday, but lives on through rhapsodic remembrances and grainy fragments of celluloid. Polley examines her mother with a certain ambivalence, celebrating her infectious spirit, while also acknowledging the ways that her often-impulsive behavior rocked the foundation of the family. Mixed in with the real home movies of Diane are authentic-looking recreations, shot on Super 8 and featuring actress Rebecca Jenkins as the deceased. Likely designed to provide visual accompaniment to some of the anecdotes, this staged footage also speaks to Polley’s point about the unreliability of memory. Jenkins isn’t playing the real woman, but an impression of her, conjured up in the minds of those whose lives she touched. While one interview subject insists that Diane knew she was dying, another swears up and down she had no idea. The truth, the film suggests, is lost in time.
Discrepancies are the point in Stories We Tell, which seems most concerned with the way the past is distorted by those remembering it, and how the desire for ownership of a story creates multiple versions of “what really happened.” If there’s a dominant voice here, it belongs to Michael, whose candid reflections provide the film with a sturdy emotional backbone. Sarah, on the other hand, leaves most of the talking to her kin. Self-aware to a fault, and plainly worried that airing her family’s dirty laundry might be an embarrassing act of narcissism, the director comes close to apologizing for the terrific essay-film she’s made. That’s a shame; Polley has taken a big leap forward by looking inward, and she can now be mentioned in the same breath as the great Agnès Varda. Sometimes “too much information” is just the right amount.