“Why would anyone be interested in hearing the story of our family?” one of actor-director Sarah Polley’s sisters asks near the beginning of her latest film, Stories We Tell, which I had the good fortune to catch at this year's Boston Independent Film Festival. But this enigmatic and highly entertaining documentary portrait of Polley’s parents arrives at insights about the unknowability of truth and about the desire for narrative coherence that lend a profundity to what might otherwise have become an exercise in navel-gazing. It joins Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans (2003) in the tradition of documentary films about seemingly ordinary families and the secrets they keep.
The figure at the center of the film is Polley’s mother Diane, a spirited blonde stage actress, casting director and homemaker who died of cancer in 1990, when Sarah was only eleven. By all accounts an infectiously charismatic person, Diane’s absence haunts the film; she’s glimpsed only in photos and what appear to be grainy home movies, and it falls to her husband and children to bring her to life via their memories. As the film progresses, we soon realize—and in more ways than one—that Diane is not the woman she appears to be at the outset of the film. To give away any more detailed information would risk spoiling some of the pleasures of Stories We Tell, which is more deceptively constructed than one might think. As its title suggests, the film is as much about the process by which stories are told, and how and why we tell them, as it is about the story itself; as such, Polley’s approach here is often self-reflexive, as she draws her audience’s attention to the choices she herself has made in using the documentary medium to tell the story of her parents’ complex relationship.
Polley’s career in film began as a child actor in the 1990s, when she appeared on the popular Canadian television series Avonlea and had a breakthrough role in Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter. Since 2007 she has worked primarily as a director. I have enjoyed her narrative features, albeit not without some reservations. She explores fascinating themes but doesn’t always seem to have a sense of which elements to put in and which to leave out. In this, her first documentary feature, Polley has made her most sure-handed film to date (though it could stand to be about fifteen minutes shorter). Seen alongside her two previous films, Away from Her and Take This Waltz, themes in her work begin to emerge; we see that she continually turns her attention to the lives of women, to the often difficult choices with which they are faced, and to the deadlock of marital fidelity. (Her next film is purported to be an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace.) With Stories We Tell, Polley comes into the full flower of her talent for the first time. Out of the tangled web of her family’s history, she has arranged something intricate and surprising. A highly recommended film.