Still not even 35, the perceptive Canadian actor-director Sarah Polley packs a lot of humane wisdom into the films she makes, previously including the intimate dramas Away from Her and Take This Waltz. Polley’s latest is a nervy departure — an intimate documentary, this time, about her own family and its most perplexing secrets. Stories We Tell is a memoir in movie form, and a sort of first-person-plural mystery as well. It’s the best and most generous creative thing Polley’s ever done, not least because she’s the only person in the world who could have done it.
Where fact-fiction hybrid documentaries are concerned, the game of wondering what’s really “true” can too easily degenerate into mere indulgence, leaving behind little more than just those quotation marks. Alternatively, more rarely, it can be a blessed riddle, as in the exemplary case of Stories We Tell. Polley’s project was to gather her extended family for a collective remembrance of her late mother, Diane, who in retrospect seemed all too comfortable at the center of so much attention. On the other hand, Diane died still guarding at least one whopper of a family secret, which Sarah rather politely but ardently wants to get to the bottom of.
Or maybe that’s not the right way to put it. Stories We Tell, as its title suggests, is not quite a getting-to-the-bottom type of undertaking. By design, it’s less an expedition for some once-and-for-all answers than a deliberately open-ended process of discovery. As to the secret in question, that’s best left in question, making the movie a challenge to describe and probably a frustration to read about. Just know that it’s very much worth seeing, and ingeniously done.
Neither overplaying nor underserving her own grief, Polley seems most keen to reveal how the fact of Diane’s goneness promotes certain family fictions. This proves an insightful and elevating approach, by which the personal becomes universal. In ostensibly standard-issue talking-head interviews, she asks her siblings, and others, to explain the family history. In vintage-looking Super-8, she annotates. Eventually, and movingly, it dawns on us that documentary itself is innately selective — that indeed there is some game-playing going on here, intended not as obfuscation but rather as a more nuanced and proper tribute, and not just to Diane but also to the ancestral pleasures of storytelling itself. Meanwhile it is precisely the elasticity of memory and the common propensity toward mythology that keeps us willing to rummage through any one heretofore unknown family’s arcana at all.
Full of reversals and reveals both big and small, Stories We Tell is a meta-puzzle, yes, but with real ethics, and human priorities. It won’t be a spoiler to say that on matter of Diane’s inner life, the rest of the family is both a great help and no help at all. Arguably they incriminate themselves, but Sarah’s plan isn’t to corner anyone; her heart is much too huge for that. Deep within the cozy nostalgic enclaves of bohemian Montreal and Toronto, some thorny questions do come up for Diane’s most significant suitors: Sarah’s sweetly reticent father Michael, himself also an actor and a writer (at Sarah’s command, he overlays the film with his own beautifully literate narration of family lore), and Harry Gulkin, a gregarious film producer. Genially, young Ms. Polley presses on, recognizing that what’s really at stake is her own origin story, and that sharing it is the best way to validate it.
That Stories We Tell doesn’t seem self-serving to its maker is practically a miracle. But Polley knows her craft, and what might have looked at first like just a scrapbook turns out to be very rigorously structured and tempered; as the film accumulates complexity, it maintains a just-right ratio of wistfulness to playfulness. Another thing about the title: Without being too presumptuous, that “we” seems to mean not just the Polleys, including those no longer alive, but all of us. In the end, everybody inherits the privilege to be an author of the Polley family story, including this movie’s audience.