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Stories We Tell: Weaving Narrative with Honesty

By Meredith Alloway · May 13, 2013

Family is undeniably inescapable. Like a silent shadow, it’s your blood, your roots, and (at times) your ball and chain. It’s no coincidence that huge psychological breakthroughs, both in history and in every day life, relate to incidents with a family member. Analyzing your emotional state usually starts with observing your hereditary history. With Sarah Polley’s latest film, Stories We Tell, that’s exactly what she’s doing. What most people take to a therapist or journal, keeping their exploration private, Polley displays with a passionate immodesty—but the illustration of her personal life is elegant. She’s created a documentary that reflects off the screen, bouncing off the mirrors each audience member brings with their personal story. It may seem vain at first, but the intention is much more universal.

Giving a full synopsis would be giving away the film entirely. But its main focus is Polley’s mother. We’re taken back to the beginning, when Polley’s parents first met. Diane and Michael have a romantic tale, meeting in the world of theater, where they both worked as actors. From there they fell madly in love, moved to Canada, and started a family. Kids pop up here and there and their family grows; but no Sarah…yet. Through interviews with her siblings, father, and friends the landscape of her mother’s life is fully realized.

Polley patches cinematic structure together like a scrapbook collage. It reads just as much like a narrative as it does a documentary, a form that sometimes belabors a certain clinical observation.  But Stories We Tell contains the same amount of anticipation and emotional involvement as watching a love story or drama on screen. Through archival and re-enacted footage (which is ridiculously convincing) we piece together images of Diane. But surprisingly, even half way into the film, we’re still not sure what it’s about.

And then, there’s “the incident.” We all have them in our family’s’ past—that one hiccup in an otherwise smooth story, the wave that changes the course of everything. For Polley, it’s a ripple that affects even its most outer-rimmed victims.

This seed of change is the core of Polley’s exploration. Perhaps her mother wasn’t who she thought she was. It’s a feeling that we clearly see her entire family suffer. The further along the film travels, the more the questions arise. What constitutes acting out of selfishness or self-preservation? Is telling a lie perhaps easier than telling the truth, for both parties? But Polley isn’t interested in closing her eyes and keeping things comfortable. She’s set to find out the truth, and she’s taking us with her.

There’s a point in the film, perhaps towards the ending, when we feel exhausted. We’re no longer interested in Polley’s family. Who gives a damn? It’s not our problem. But that’s exactly the point that deserves our most devoted attention. It’s also what reminds us that it’s a documentary and not a narrative. Polley can’t wrap it up. We think we’re been watching a love story and expect a big red bow, but it never comes. The answers are unearthed, we think there’s an end in sight, and then it continues on again. This happens for a good portion of the film, and it causes a slight headache. But that’s in the nature of the story, intrinsic to what Polley is exploring all together. With family, there is no one answer. Perhaps the only solution lies within the acts of sharing and, what Polley depicts, liberating.