Sarah Polley has been a celebrity in Canada since she was a child, but she is best known in the States for strong acting in movies such as The Sweet Hereafter and the Dawn ofthe Dead reboot. She has also directed the often-excellent features Away From Her and Take This Waltz.
This doesn’t mean we should care about her family. Even her own sister thinks the idea of a movie about the Polley clan seems silly.
Instead, Stories We Tell is a low-key masterstroke, a sharply realized look at memory and family, at how we tell the stories we grow up with, how the lies we tell ourselves and our loved ones come to pass and how they hurt and help and shape us in the long run.
It’s also a startlingly savvy and technically accomplished look at the mechanics of storytelling, both filmic and oral (viewers are invited to pay special attention to how Polley uses Super 8 footage; it’s a powerful format we don’t see enough of anymore).
There is a lot going on here, far more than it initially seems, and the closer you look at it, at the hows and whys of the choices Polley makes, the more the movie engages and the more deeply it is felt.
The film begins with a flurry of process: Boom mics are shown in the frame as Polley addresses her four siblings in separate interviews. “Are you nervous?” she, off-camera, asks her brother.
“A little,” he says.
“Yeah, it’ll get worse,” she replies, almost good-naturedly. This is a family that loves each other, but indeed it does get worse as Polley says to each of them, essentially: Tell the story of our mom and dad in your own words.
Elsewhere, we see Polley in a recording studio, taping an elderly Englishman recording what sounds like a decently crafted bit of literary fiction as a voiceover. He seems to be telling his story. Or is it hers? Both of theirs? She occasionally asks him to re-record a line here and there.
The man is Michael Polley, Sarah’s father, and what he is reading is his account of his marriage to Diane MacMillan, a fellow actor in Canadian theater and film. His narration will become the spine and dominant voice of this exceptional movie, but it is by no means the “true” account.
Diane is the sort of woman who is enthusiastic about everything. Already married and divorced with two children when she meets the dashing Michael Polley, Diane radiates charisma. She is the life of any party, a contagious personality who nonetheless runs the house and raises several additional kids with Michael, all the while trying to maintain a career in the creative arts.
Michael is not these things. He is not energetic, he is not demonstrative, he has talents he doesn’t use. Diane sees him in a show; the two fall in love. But Michael is convinced she “fell in love not with me but my character.”
“She had tremendous vitality,” he says. “I can play that, but I can’t live like that.”
Their marriage in Toronto is strained and complicated, but it endures for years. When Diane gets a part in a play in Montreal, it seems like a nice break for both husband and wife.
She also becomes pregnant at 42 with Sarah; it becomes a running joke in her family that she doesn’t really look like Dad.
Diane died of cancer a few days after Sarah turned 1; Sarah became, as one sibling puts it, “a little kid whom no one is taking care of.”
Except Michael notes that the two became closer than ever, as he was a single dad raising a daughter. Is it one or the other? Is it both? Can it be both?
Again and again, as Stories We Tell moves along, Polley revises what we have just seen with revelations large and small. As you might imagine, Diane haunts every frame, often literally. Her friends, her husband, her children, her lovers both real and imagined: All of them have a slightly different view of this woman.
Polley herself pulls off an exceptional high-wire act; this is essay filmmaking of a very high order. As with David Carr’s memoir The Night of the Gun, Polley is essentially reporting on herself but is well aware that nobody she talks to is going to have the whole story.
In fact, when one key character notes that the story is theirs alone to tell, it seems absurd. Life just doesn’t work that way. Everyone’s story intersects with every other, and we do our level best to muddle through to find a truth we can live with.
Which is not to say that Stories We Tell is a grim or dire movie or even an unusually sad one. Every family has tragedies and secrets and questions that will never be entirely resolved. What Stories We Tell does so brilliantly is both tell the story and tell about how we tell our stories. The truth may not be out there.
With: John Buchan, Joanna Polley, Mark Polley, Michael Polley.
Writer-director: Sarah Polley.
Producer: Anita Lee.
A Roadside Attractions release. Running time: 108 minutes. Mild vulgar language. In Miami-Dade only: Tower.