Stories We Tell (Canada; 108 min.)

directed by:
Sarah Polley
Stories We Tell

Bruce says: "Sarah Polley first dazzled film lovers with wonderful performances in THE SWEET HEREAFTER, EXOTICA, THE HANGING GARDEN, LAST NIGHT, and MY LIFE WITHOUT ME. Then she turned to directing and dazzled once again with the narrative features AWAY FROM HER and TAKE THIS WALTZ. How does one follow up after such an endless string of successes? Ms. Polley now delivers a documentary feature that is every bit as scintillating as her narrative work.

“Most of us have some big old family skeletons in the closet. Many choose to not open the door or, should they do so, pretend there is nothing in the closet to see. Sarah’s mother Diane died when she was just eleven, a difficult age to lose a mother. For years there had been rumors that her mother had affairs and was very seriously involved with a fellow actor when she left her family for a number of months to perform on the Montreal stage. Some inferred that actor was her father.

“Sarah grew up with her father and fellow actor Michael Polley. The two have worked together on several occasions. Many years younger than her full siblings, the two were alone together after Diane Polley died. Several years ago Sarah began interviewing everyone in her family about Diane, what they knew about her, what they thought about her. As the project grew and took shape, she asked Michael to help her. He agreed to write the narrative for the film and to be the narrator who reveals family secrets. This was a courageous and loving gift.

“Diane Polley was an intriguing beauty. Home movies illustrate how illusive she was, always the life of the party but never quite there. She wanted to be the center of attention; she wanted to run away. Each of her four other children offer their opinions. Two were fathered by her first husband and two with Michael. The extended family is included, friends, those she worked with in the theatre and on television. The descriptions of Diane are varied ’Infectious.’ ‘Enthusiastic.’ ‘ Loud.’ ‘Good time Charlie.’ ‘Always in trouble.’ ‘Dominating.’ ‘Magnetic.’ ‘Excitable.’ ‘Calm.’ ‘Centered.’ ‘Insane.’ ‘Lacking guile.’ ‘Woman of secrets.’ No wonder no one knew exactly who Diane was.

“When Diane was offered a stage role in Montreal it came at the time when her marriage had grown stale. ‘Dad says mom wanted more sex than he did,’ is one way of positioning things. After she returned from Montreal she was pregnant. Michael and she had spent a little time together there so no one asked questions. Diane wanted an abortion but at the last minute she changed her mind. So Sarah was born.

“STORIES WE TELL examines the vagaries of truth and the unreliability of memories. Truths beget other truths, and that leads one to think about truths that are concealed. STORIES WE TELL is reminiscent of 51 BIRCH STREET, the documentary by filmmaker Doug Block who discovered his mother had a secret life when he discovered the diaries she had kept for most of her married life. Sarah Polley, too, discovers truths that would have remained silent had she not explored her mother’s past so thoroughly. Her film is entertaining and enlightening. Whether it all adds up good or bad is difficult to ascertain. As Ms. Polley says, ‘Something has forever changed.’ 5 cats

“(STORIES WE TELL screened at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.)"

Thom says:  "This is a film that I was able to come away from with my head in a whirl. I've long been a fan of Sarah Polley from her brilliant career as an actress and for being the director of two great films in AWAY FROM HER & TAKE THIS WALTZ. So I had high hopes for this quasi-documentary of internal power & self-discovery in a search for a lost father. But I also went into it after reading San Francisco Chronicle critic Mick LaSalle's lambasting of said film, "The opposite of a courageous piece of work STORIES WE TELL is a vanity piece that goes out of its way to protect every single person it touches. It would have worked much better as a private home movie." That he has such trouble relating to anything real should be of concern to his legion of readers, but probably won't be. At any rate, Polley had whiffs of information growing up that the man that she called dad might not actually be her biological father. She finally decides to explore the possibility that her "real" father might be out there somewhere. What she discovers is the only basis for this precious effort. I have to admit relating to the film in a very subjective light. My mother Frances was pregnant with me by my biological father when she was married to another man whom she no longer loved. Even stranger, her husband was having an affair with my father's trampy wife, a lustful coupling that was eventually squashed by his bourgeois mother. As Sarah was told, I was as well, that my mom had considered an abortion. So my relations to the proceedings was highly coloured. Artistically, I thought the film might have lost the last 10 minutes, but otherwise my admiration for Polley continues to grow. 4 cats"

Chris says:  "Anyone can make a documentary about his/her own family (and arguably too many have); for her first nonfiction feature, veteran actress/budding director Sarah Polley does just that. Although she’s blessed with a juicy narrative, the gist of the story itself is only a jumping off point for her to explore with more depth how such a story can be told. STORIES WE TELL incisively considers factors such as the differing points of view from each family member, the abundance (or absence) of found documentation (home movies, letters, etc;) available and how all that information is shaped into a narrative (what’s emphasized, what’s left out).

"In telling this story, Polley interviews her father Michael (an actor himself), her four older siblings, and an extended network of persons who knew her mother, Diane, who died of cancer nearly two decades before. Additionally, she intersperses the talking heads interviews with home movie footage and narration; apart from the reading of a few letters, the latter consists mostly of Michael reading his own account of the story, written in the third person. To this, Polley adds a third layer to Michael’s presence by repeatedly filming him recording the narration in a studio. We end up comparing what Michael’s written to how he reads it to the candidness of his unrehearsed answers in the interviews and see the blend of multiple perspectives and emotional shadings coming from just one person.

"The story has a twist in it that you’re best coming into the film cold about. All I’ll say here is that it impeccably fortifies the subject matter, bringing up notions of what, exactly, makes a family, going far beyond the term’s literalness. However, Polley also has a twist of her own in how she tells the story. Again, it’s best not to give it away, but its audacity and ingenuity is what, after two equally fine if stylistically disparate films (AWAY FROM HER and TAKE THIS WALTZ) further cements Polley’s status as an great, original filmmaker.  5 cats"

Diane says:  "Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley explores hidden family history in STORIES WE TELL, a doc about her own family and especially herself. I'll just add that Polley masterfully times the revelations that take us deeper into this story. The editing, the range of who's interviewed, and the way she handles old family videos work extremely well.

I do regret that the question of ~ why ~ we are compelled to tell these stories, addressed at the end, did not get more attention. I would have liked to hear Polley face her underlying motivation. This story is unique to her family, but the struggle with whether and why to tell is something we can all relate to. 4 cats"