Stealthily witty and mordantly funny, heart-tweaking and brain-teasing, Stories We Tell is a handsomely crafted, passionately conceived docudrama about the elusiveness of knowledge. It is a fact-based Rashomon, an exposé on fabrication, and an invigorating powerhouse on family mythology with ingenious structure and candid interviews.
Self-described as a search for “the vagaries of truth and the unreliability of memory,” writer-director Sarah Polley (Take This Waltz, Away from Her) tackles past demons in an interrogation into storytelling and an investigation into the documentary form itself.
The purpose of the project is to examine the impact of her mother’s death (at age 11) and the discovery of her biological father’s real identity (at age 28) on the rest of her family, including her mother’s husband, Toronto actor Michael Polley, and lover, Montreal producer Harry Gulkin. Intimacies long submerged are revealed, contradictory explanations are proposed, and Polley is there to document it all with poise and intelligence.
Each of Polley’s movies ache with ethical quandary. In Stories We Tell, she retains multiple divergent perspectives, despite the fact that key individuals disagree with her inclusive approach. In staying true to her exemplary moral compass, she judiciously uncovers the consequential refractions felt throughout her kin, and corroborates the malleability of what we remember. As it happens, one of the most jaw-dropping revelations occurs halfway through the end credits.
Her deeply compassionate soul causes gossipy and heartfelt testimony alike to shimmer off the screen. While some have criticized her work as impenetrable or overlong, it is keenly perceptive in the observations it records. Michael’s admission near the end is a discerning statement on tenacity after trauma: “Just accept the sentence. I will go on. I will go on.” Polley’s half-sister vacillates on the ultimate happiness achieved by their mother: “I’m not sure she was loved by the person she wanted to be loved by.” But then few of us are.
Staggering in its universality and penetrating in its insight, Stories We Tell unfolds like a mystery and twists like a thriller. If it is a form of personal denial, it is concurrently a conduit of artistic attestation. Seldom has our modern taste for the confessional mode been so smartly explored. Polley’s tangled memoir confirms her as a resolute anatomist of secrets and lies. Hers is an essential voice in the world of filmmaking, and she needs to keep speaking.