There’s a moment late in Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley’s newest film and her first documentary, where Michael, her father, is confronted with the film’s big reveal. He gazes absent-mindedly at her daughter behind the camera, then at the window by his side, and then goes on to say in voiceover narration that he froze upon hearing the news “as he imagines Sarah had when she first heard it.” He’s unaware that the audience has already seen Sarah’s reaction to the same reveal a few scenes earlier. Sarah is anything but frozen. Surprised, sure, but not frozen at all. She is, or at least looks to be, genuinely relieved and happy about it. And she confirms our intuition about her feelings when she later admits that she was filled with joy that she had finally uncovered that secret. That, in essence, is why I’ve fallen so madly in love with her new film. It’s been a few days since I watched it and my mind keeps racing back to it at every chance, remembering every precious little moment.
Stories We Tell is centred on Diane, Sarah’s late mother, who was a theatre and television personality in Canada back in her day. Though “centering” is probably not the correct term. She is the focal point of the titular stories, but there’s nothing cyclical or circular about the way the narrative unfolds. As the title suggests, the structure is formed through interviews with family members and acquaintances who share their recollections of Diane. Polley’s more or less aware of the full scope of her story when she embarks on the adventure to make this film, but instead of telling us her story, she asks everyone involved – her two sisters, two brothers, father Michael (who also narrates the film through a piece he has written about his life with his wife), her mother’s friends and co-stars in a Montreal theatre production – to tell her everything about Diane as if she never knew her at all. From the resulting interviews, she peels back layers of information in ways so surprising that we’re kept guessing till the very last frame.
The strength of the film, however, lies not in the surprises – though there are plenty and they are deliciously scandalous – but precisely in the manner in which Polley tells the story. There are tales of romance, passion, ennui, infidelity and such in every family. It’s in the way Polley presents them to us that gives them warmth and depth. It is the way she forces us to rethink our perceptions of ourselves and our family members that make the film a special delight. Stories We Tell shows us that even those closest to us can often act radically different from what we expect of them and can have big secrets stored in their heart for an entire lifetime without letting anything slide; even when those secrets matter more to us than themselves. This film isn’t so much about the characters but the way they are formed through others’ words, perceptions and misconceptions about them.
Technically, too, Stories is an impressive accomplishment. Mike Munn’s work in the cutting room is crucial to the film’s tone as everything boils down to the order of interviews and the setup of the reveals, and his crisp editing does a great job of bringing everything neatly together. Polley has carefully recreated her mother’s theatre stint in Montreal and manages to integrate the washed out visuals of those sequences seamlessly in the intimately photographed reconstructions of the present time and the interviews. In transferring her bright, gracefully soft aesthetic and her repetitious but sparse approach to storytelling from fiction to documentary, Polley proves herself as one of the most interesting, unique voices in today’s cinema; a filmmaker whose every effort, even if flawed, is incredibly rewarding.