In the recent spate of actors turning the second act of their careers into one behind the camera, Ben Affleck has rightly earned his praise and much of the attention. Equally impressive, though in a very different kind of genre, is Sarah Polley, who wowed critics and peers alike with her Oscar-nominated Away From Her, and the even more impressive, Take This Waltz. These tales about marriages, both old and somewhat new, were heartbreaking examinations of the times when somebody had to admit that it was over and time to move on. In her new documentary, Polley points the camera at members of her own family and not only informs on where her directorial efforts stem from but confirm her as one of the best and most interesting filmmakers working today.
The focus of Sarah’s queries stem from her mother, Diana, herself an actress who passed away when she was a child. Through recollections of her father and siblings, Diana is remembered as a woman full of life who gave up a lot for her family. Through home movie footage and interviews that begin to offer different first-hand perspective and conjecture, the story carefully builds itself into more than just a personal memoir. Sarah’s father was also an actor and we watch him now being directed by his daughter to narrate a life story that most families would likely want suppressed.
Like any good story, the less one knows about its direction, the better, even if it appears as nothing more than a personal passion project by the one telling it. Right away the question is asked in so many words – “Who cares?” – about the Polley family. Why should anyone? For some in society it could just be the case of a ripping good yarn laced with tabloid tableaus. Fans of the actress/filmmaker may be curious to learn more of how she came to be. With all that in mind and each element working concurrently along the film’s path, Polley is still pulling us towards a greater truth that extends to not just her family but all of our families and then some.
Stories We Tell is meticulously constructed into three equally compelling sections. The first 45 minutes establish the history and relationships. We know the very moment the film shifts into a second gear as Polley works to not just make sense of her discoveries, and peeling away more layers, but wrestling with exploring this further as a personal document made public. Then, with the grace of the great and powerful Oz, Polley unveils the curtain on what the title actually encapsulates, as well as the techniques that she has used to draw us in as lovers of film in all its complicated magic.
Greater breakdowns of Polley’s accomplishment here will be written for those unconcerned with spoilers, but in a still fresh career behind the camera, Sarah already earns comparison with Orson Welles, who took on the narrative of authenticity in his own documentary, F for Fake. Stories We Tell is actually as equal a statement on the broken relationships of her first two movies, Away From Her (which dealt with memory) and Take This Waltz (which dealt with a young woman’s fantasy of a new life), as it is on the natural practice of storytelling.
Those fascinated with time-travel paradoxes should consider the progression of a story’s inception, what it’s about and who it is liable to reach. The person telling the tale is just as important as the content in terms of context and credibility. Once that grapevine is started, perception is changed and an element of the world, no matter how small, is also altered forever. With as perfect a final line as Stories We Tell offers, if you have not submitted that Sarah Polley is the real deal by now, with this review or even by then, your view may just be changed. For the better.