Every family has at least one story to tell. Whether it’s the immigrant story or a historical legend or the adventures of that one weird uncle, there’s always some labyrinthine mixture of truth and fantasy that entrenches a family’s history. Stories We Tell is a documentary about one humble tale. Directed by critically-acclaimed filmmaker Sarah Polley, the film delves into her parents’life and her upbringing, spiraling into rumours of infidelity and her heritage. It’s a marvellously self-indulgent film, but one that is a delight to watch.
Stories We Tell starts with candid moments with each member of Sarah’s family. They all question her approach, why the movie is being made and give some pretext to the dialogue between the documentary’s creator and her subjects. Sarah then delves into her parents’ relationship, focusing on her mother’s side. Her mother is long dead and as a result, much of the movie is about her absence. The movie is constructed so that it appears as if we have almost every piece of the truth, we’re just missing her own perspective. That absence leads to the greatest mystery of the film, her mother’s trip to Montreal to act in the play, Toronto in the late 1970s.
The film goes over that trip several times, each time adding in the new facts Sarah’s uncovered. First it appears that Montreal is where her mother and father, Michael Polley, rekindled their waning relationship. Then it becomes the centre for a likely infidelity, as family members joke that Sarah looks nothing like her father. And finally, it transforms into the place where her mother found love once again. It just so happened to be in the arms of another man.
From the start a savvy viewer will be able to anticipate each new development. Real life has a way of playing into established storylines, and as such Sarah’s living family is at the crux of the film. The reveal that she is not Michael’s biological daughter is not as impressive as her sister’s tearful reaction to learning that their mother recaptured love. Nor is it as draining as her brother’s disappointment in their mother’s irresponsibility. These very human reactions transcend the documentary’s occasional banality. The intrigue comes from each family member’s reaction, not least of which is her father’s.
Michael is perhaps the most endearing subject in the film. He narrates the film with his self-depreciating memoirs. They’re well-written and his voice comes off as both mournful and yet complacent. He has a pleasant demeanour and ever present voice. As a result, Sarah’s attempts to discuss her heritage are all the more stressful for the viewer.
The only portion of the film that is disconcertingly philosophical is the discussion about who owns the drama. Sarah’s biological father debates with her about who should be telling the story and attempts to directly address the subjective nature of truth. But the truth is that these scenes drags on. These questions are best used as themes permeating the documentary, not spoken aloud. Plus, the director has clearly embraced that reality is subjective since most of the flashbacks are recreations made to appear like Super 8 home movies. It is an indulgence too far in an already decadent film.
Stories We Tell is a well-built documentary about family legends. The film’s construction flows in and out of moments in time, like memories connected by a thematic thread. The movie is never quite chronological, and is better for it, pulling together stories that feel emotionally relevant. Sarah Polley may not have the most unique family in the world, but the execution makes the story feel heartfelt. It exemplifies how out of control family stories can get, even the recent ones, to the point that the film’s final punch line is a perplexing, but entirely satisfying end.