How does one confront a family mystery that everyone seems to know the answer to, but no one can quite get to the bottom of? If you’re Canadian writer-director Sarah Polley—most likely known to American audiences from Doug Liman’s Go, Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, and her own movie, Away from Her, which stars Julie Christie—you turn the camera on yourself and your extended family.
The mystery of Stories We Tell centers around Polley’s mother, Diane, and the secrets she carried with her until her death in 1990. Diane was by all accounts—including those of her five children, ex-husband and various friends and co-workers—fun, vivacious and born to be the center of attention. She was a semi-successful actor in Canada and a casting director, and everyone on camera has tales about her life-of-the-party demeanor.
There’s also a lingering sadness, not just because of Diane’s death, but because of several tragedies that followed her throughout her life, including a messy end to a first marriage and an affair that almost wrecked the second. At first, Diane seems like a reckless individual, but as the documentary marches on and more secrets are revealed, it seems her pursuit of happiness was driven by an almost profound existential sadness.
If you’ve watched Sarah Polley’s work as an actor, you can see that in her; her best performances have a layer of melancholy just below the surface. One of the traps that Polley avoids is using this documentary as a sort of I-just-gotta-be-me testament. Stories We Tell is, as its title suggests, an exploration into the ways we tell ourselves truths, lies and all matters of things in between to cope with our existences. The fact that this one family had so much going on beneath the surface is sort of beside the point.
To give away the enigma at the heart of Stories We Tell wouldn’t necessarily give away the thing that drives it—you can guess where it’s going about 10 minutes in—but it’s probably better to let the movie get to you on its own terms as it focuses heavily on three players: Polley herself (mostly off camera, though we often hear her voice), her father, Michael Polley, also an actor, and Harry Gulkin, a film producer.
One of the things that pops up over and over while watching Stories We Tell is the fact that 8mm footage of Diane Polley is plentiful. After a while, it becomes apparent that Sarah Polley has shot a lot of archival footage for the documentary, and is using it to push the narrative along and paint a fuller picture of her mother, father, and various friends and relatives. Does that make Stories We Tell more or less real, and the emotions at its core more or less authentic? It’s a question that Polley raises and doesn’t answer, and your reaction will be tied up in how much you identify with the movie’s players.
Sarah Polley’s father, Michael, comes across as so reserved that one wonders whether, at times, he has a pulse. But then he’ll reveal a stark truth about himself and take responsibility for his own shortcomings. He also writes and contributes a voiceover that Sarah directs him through as a sort of framing device. It comes up over and over that he had talent as a writer but never did anything with it—maybe Stories We Tell is the vehicle he finally needed.
At its heart, Stories We Tell is Sarah Polley’s story, but she’s content to give each member of her family their say. There’s affection for each of the people on screen no matter what their version of the tale. It’s too bad we can’t hear Diane’s take on things in her own words. Some mysteries can’t be solved.
STORIES WE TELL
Written and directed by Sarah Polley