The first thing that director Sarah Polley asks of the subjects of her documentary debut, Stories We Tell, is for “the whole story.” She asks for it with little fanfare and with an obvious desire to allow her subjects as long as they need to tell that whole story. But, more than anything, Polley asks for that truth honestly, believing that there actually is some whole story to be revealed and that enough time and patience and questions will allow it to show itself.
It’s a wild idea, really, asking for honesty and cohesion, even when it comes to documentary filmmaking, a process that, more than anything, aims to illuminate truth and real stories. And yet, it’s also an insane demand – stories are subjective, memory so fickle, experience so fractured – can we expect people to give Polley one satisfying story? On the other hand, we can’t blame Polley for asking for such truth because, after all, she’s not just the film’s director – she’s also its subject.
Before you learn just about anything about Sarah’s parents, Michael and Diane Polley, you will learn that they were very different people, those differences made all the worse by their shared acting background, their similar abilities to disappear into other characters only ensuring that their personality-based disconnects would be that much more complex and that much more deep. Diane was all razzle-dazzle and overwhelming spirit and zest for life, and while Michael could play with a similar hunger onstage (in fact, some even believe that it was Michael’s portrayal of such a character is what Diane actually fell in love with, not the man behind it), he was considerably less sparkly and interested in devouring the world whole than his wife would like to believe. This is all a long way of explaining why the Polleys might not have been so happy, why Diane ventured outside the relationship for fulfillment, and why that ultimately led to her giving birth to a child who was not Michael’s.
That child was Sarah and, no, she didn’t know of her true parentage for many years and, no, Michael didn’t know either and, yes, that’s what Stories We Tell is about. It does not get more personal than this.
Yet Polley is still able to approach her work with a clinical eye, only crumbling in bits and pieces, if that. Polley’s subjects include her father, all four of her siblings, friends of her mother, at least two possible biological dads, and many more, and though Polley never subjects herself to such interviews, the film in its entirety can act as a version of a Sarah-centric interview. After all, her questions are often more insightful than some of the jumbled answers she receives from others. Framed up by Michael’s voiceover telling the story of Diane, the various interviews that make up the bulk of Stories We Tell flow together with ease, intermittently interspersed with home video footage (well, some, you’ll see) and Polley crafting her project. Structurally speaking, Stories We Tell is neatly and intuitively put together, an impressive documentary debut for Polley, who has previously made other, beautiful features films (Away From Her, Take This Waltz).
But as Stories We Tell heads into its third act, what first reads as a meticulous desire to cover every angle of the story and to give voice to everyone involved in it crumbles into repetition and routine. Polley’s aims to find some central truth from the stories and memories of many are admirable, but thirty minutes of the same stories repeated ad nauseum, with no new enlightening details added in, do nothing to further her film. After awhile, Stories We Tell becomes so absorbingly personal (after all, who, besides Polley and her family, would find the exact same stories and reactions crucial to an understanding that has been hammered home already?) that it finally just becomes what such an insulated and unique family story often becomes – boring and meaningless to outside audiences, with Polley’s personal desires obscuring her ability to edit as a filmmaker.
And yet. What is documentary filmmaking if it is not the search for truth, hard-won truth that often needs to be demanded and pressed and prodded and questioned, and repeatedly so? What definitive answer can we (and Polley) expect to get if the questions are not repeated, refined, remade? While Stories We Tell might weaken because its self-reflexivity gives way to a messy, fruitless self-indulgence, Polley’s ability to uncover truth and to present it for public consumption is bold and brave, and bodes well for her (hopefully) continued doc career.
The Upside: It’s a very personal film, made all the more impressive by the fact that Polley went so personal on her first doc outing; Polley’s desire for “the whole story” illuminates a boldness welcome in documentary filmmaking; well-crafted reenactments.
The Downside: A meandering, dragging final third threatens to undo and dilute the impact of the previous material; Polley reveals some of her most impressive filmmaking “tricks” far too late.
On the Side: Stories We Tell recently won the very prestigious Toronto Film Critics Association’s Best Canadian Film Award for the year.
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