Stories We Tell
Film Title: Stories We Tell
Director: Sarah Polley
Starring: Sarah Polley
Running Time: 108 min
Sarah Polley begins her documentary on family secrets and lies with a quote from Margaret Atwood. “When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion,” the Canadian wrote in Alias Grace. Thus Polley sets out her stall. Don’t trust what you see. Everything is slippery. One person’s historical certainty is another’s person’s unhinged delusion.
Much praised on its US release, Polley’s film keeps that notion to the front of its mind throughout. Every 15 minutes or so, a new revelation takes us through a hitherto unsuspected narrative hairpin.
For all that, Stories We Tell does ultimately feel a little overextended. Ms Polley has an interesting (if you’ll excuse me) story to tell. But she has most of it told within an hour. The subsequent self-conscious games seem like doodles at the edges of a perfectly satisfactory miniature.
An accomplished actor who, with Away From Her, subsequently proved to be an excellent director, Polley was apparently born in Toronto to Michael Polley, a solid insurance agent, and Diane Polley, a flighty, colourful actor. Diane died when Sarah was just 11 years old.
Drawing testimony from Polley’s extended family and associates, the film explains that, throughout the director’s teenage years, her siblings made jokes about her parentage. There were rumours that her mom had had an affair while performing in Montreal (portrayed as decadent Catholic Bohemia to Toronto’s solid Protestant drab-land). Was she really the daughter of this actor or that film producer? At first one candidate seems likely. Then another steps up into the frame. Sarah eventually finds herself confronting long-told lies with admirable maturity and understanding.
Indeed, for all the turbulent emotions on display, Stories We Tell does go some way towards confirming certain, largely positive stereotypes about the temperate nature of the Canadian psyche. Everybody is so darn grown-up about it all. Michael (born in England, admittedly) is able to acknowledge that, less volatile than his late wife, he could never quite provide all she needed in a relationship, but his affection for her appears largely undimmed. Sarah’s brothers and sisters – or do we mean half-brother and half-sisters? –seem equally capable of processing massive shocks without suffering any nervous breakdowns.
Polley holds back certain revelations with great skill. About two thirds of the way through a more ancient misery (a revelation to us, but known throughout to the family) is unveiled, and we find ourselves thinking very differently about the characters.
So, what’s the problem? Well, as Stories We Tell goes on, Polley’s various Brechtian gimmicks – each aimed at pointing up the unreliability of memory – gradually outstay their welcome and their usefulness. Throughout the picture, Diane’s story is illustrated by grainy home movies. Before too long, it will become apparent to any vaguely alert viewer that there is just too much footage and that too many unlikely events have been recorded. A late reveal, showing actors being made-up to look like Diane and her associates, comes across as just that little bit too arch. Did her brother really need to position himself with a copy of Anna Karenina, a book that famously begins with a meditation on the unhappiness of families? And so on.
In the closing moments, one of the key participants ponders whether so many voices can ever effectively tell such a story. The film itself doesn’t really ask that question; it merely answers it. By the close, we have such a secure grasp of the facts that all these gestures towards the insecurity of memory seem redundant. The witnesses disagree on a few extraneous details. But nobody really disputes the significant disclosures.
A decent piece of work, but too fussy for its own good.