Written by Cassandra Singh.
Sarah Polley is mostly known as an actress. You may remember her from roles in Zac Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead and Vincenzo Natali’s Splice, but she proved that she was indeed a filmmaker to look out for when her screenplay for the critically acclaimed Away from Her (which she also directed) garnered her an Oscar nomination. Her follow-up, Take This Waltz, didn’t gather the same attention but it was still well received. Polley has changed directions for her third entry as writer-director, turning the camera on her family in an attempt to unearth some emotional family secrets.
In Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley interviews her family members and friends to decipher certain mysteries that have come to light over the years. Without wanting to give too much away, the documentary focuses on Polley’s mother and the secrets that she held. Polley, mixing straight-forward interviews, archival footage, old family photographs and beautifully crafted re-enactments, unravels her mother’s story in a way that attempts to find the truth in variety of individual re-collections.
The title, and the film’s marketing, suggest that these mixed re-collections are in some way intriguing enough to focus on. This isn’t the case. While certain members of Polley’s family do remember things quite differently from one another, the documentary works better as a simple story of a frustrated woman who was trying to find happiness while attempting to raise a family.
Narrated by Polley’s father, who we get see recording under Polley’s direction, the structure provides an interesting narrative that slowly drip feeds information to the viewer. Those that are interviewed aren’t clearly identified. Only their name is shown without any clarification as to how they relate to Polley and her family. This works as a great way to let everyone’s stories speak for themselves, with reveals gathering momentum as the doco progresses.
Having Mr. Polley narrate the film is also an unfortunate artistic decision. The film is mostly about Polley’s investigation, but her thoughts and opinions on important events are never made clear. Her father, and nearly every family member for that matter, provides the emotional pay-offs that are needed for the documentary to work. This is all well and good, but it would have been so much more personal had we been able to connect with our lead investigator.
It’s great that Polley has allowed her subjects to come across as natural as possible. She includes their questions to her, their want to understand her reasoning for making this documentary and their amusing worries of how they appear on camera. These simple excerpts serve as a way for us to connect to these subjects; more than just talking heads, they are people.
Stories We Tell never quite reaches the emotional heights or the humanistic depths that it aims for, but it gets pretty close. Polley has beautifully crafted a personal investigation that would have been more complete had she been more willing to incorporate herself into it. Nevertheless, this is quite an emotional, honest and intriguing family story.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10