Editor’s note: “Stories We Tell” opens in New York this week ahead of a wider release next week. A version of this review originally ran during the Telluride Film Festival.
Sarah Polley’s efforts behind the camera have showcased tender performances attuned to nuanced fluctuations in shared screen chemistry. Both her Oscar-nominated 2006 directorial debut “Away from Her” and the recent “Take This Waltz” explore the deterioration of relationships in minute detail. While her third feature, “Stories We Tell,” marks a shift to nonfiction for the filmmaker, it similarly foregrounds the subtleties of human expression and the secrets embedded within it. A blatantly personal account of her Toronto-based family’s rocky developments, “Stories We Tell” marks the finest of Polley’s filmmaking skills by blending intimacy and intrigue to remarkable effect.
Part of the reason why “Stories We Tell” works so well is that at first it doesn’t seem like it should. Setting up interviews with her father, Michael, in addition for various family and friends, Polley embarks on an account of her actor-mother Diane, who died of cancer when Polley was still a child. While obviously heartfelt, the drama lacks an immediate hook for those unacquainted with Polley’s personal history, and she doesn’t back away from it. “Who the fuck cares about our family?” her sister asks, establishing a challenge that Polley cautiously navigates for the first 45 minutes before reaching a point where the allure is self-evident.
Even before then, however, “Stories We Tell” is a fluid, engaging memoir by virtue of its construction. Polley apparently spent five years threading together conversations with Michael in addition to her other relatives and friends, and the effort shows. As the movie recounts her actor parents’ initial courtship and subsequent marital difficulties, Polley skillfully displays a complex mixture of sadness, humor and overarching warmth that echoes the likeminded family portraits of Alan Berliner and Doug Block. Nevertheless, Polley is at heart a narrative filmmaker, and her account of the family’s saga contains a sneakier approach that reveals multiple surprises at it glides along.
Moving beyond the familiar combination of archival footage and talking heads, Polley puts her eloquent dad in front of a microphone and allows him to read a script recounting his married life and the fallout of Diane’s death in the third person. That’s merely the first indication that Polley’s storytelling bears the mark of sly manipulation. As an interviewer behind the camera, she pushes her subjects to reveal the secrets of her late mother’s life and singles out their unreliable memories through ongoing contrasts. By way of implication, “Stories We Tell” explores Polley’s inability to fully comprehend the genesis of her existence. “This is an interrogation process,” she jokes to her father, but could just as well be talking to herself.
Eventually, “Stories We Tell” deepens its intrigue when the filmmaker questions her mother’s fidelity and wonders if she has a different father. Yet even when Polley launches into mission mode, the movie never suggests a vanity project; with only the sparsest references to her career, her participation in the narrative takes place largely by way of implication. The collection of input from relatives and friends are positioned with a sense of remove that universalizes the story so that the mystery of Pollley’s investigation comes ahead of her investment in it. Her approach puts a general audience interest ahead of her own. “Tell the story as though I don’t know it,” she says, and Polley follows suit by structuring her tale to emphasize its various speculative twists.
While the search for her real father forms the most compelling ingredient, “Stories We Tell” equally works as a study of personality through memory: As the only subject not able to speak for herself, Polley’s mother is assembled through fractured perceptions with no clear resolution. Glimpsed in a bountiful collection of home movies (which contain a cryptic quality only revealed during the analytical finale), Diane is a scattered puzzle composed of fragments no single testimony can reassemble — especially not Polley herself.
Coming full circle, the director eventually turns the camera on herself, but avoids coming across as mopey or narcissistic. Instead, the storyteller enters the story in order to understand its significance. “The crucial function of art is to tell the truth,” she’s told, but she posits her mission as an attempt to find “the vagaries of truth” and ultimately leaves us with a slew of ambiguities. By the end, only a handful of certainties have bubbled to the surface, none more affecting than the case for the movie’s existence.
Criticwire grade: A