Film Review: Stories We Tell

A genre-twisting documentary with a fictional vibe that playfully bares the elusive truths about a family of storytellers.

A standout at the recent 42nd edition of New Directors/New Films (a joint project of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and The Film Society of Lincoln Center), Stories We Tell by actor/filmmaker Sarah Polley marks a stunning new direction in storytelling. Ostensibly, it's a documentary about Polley's own family that recreates from multiple viewpoints a portrait of her mother Diane, a vivacious actress who died when Sarah was eleven. Midway, Stories segues to a search for Polley's biological father who, according to family mythology, is not the same as her legal father, Michael Polley.

In itself, the family drama is banal, barely noteworthy. What's extraordinary is Polley's sly, innovative strategy for arriving at a series of elusive truths about her family by interweaving archival home movies and talking-head interviews with Diane's children and friends, who often offer conflicting memories. Providing a narrative through-line is an extended family history read aloud by Diane's husband Michael and filmed as Stories unscrolls by Polley herself, presiding onscreen as investigator of the project.

The film leads with a quote from Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace: “When you are in the middle of a story, it isn't a story... It's only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all.” With these words, Polley lays out her agenda of deconstructing how we tell stories. She also daringly challenges herself with a key question: Who cares about our family anyway? Polley gambles that by wrapping viewers in her process of excavation—including its hesitations and stumbles—we will indeed come to care. And we do.

At the center is the haunting figure of Polley's mother, who's seen mainly in grainy, jerky home movies and evoked through the memories of others, including past lovers. A fetching blonde with an incandescent smile, Diane comes across as a free spirit and larger-than-life charmer (though some might find her manic) who was adored by her children. After Diane's earlier marriage dissolved, her first husband, in an unusual move for the times, was awarded custody of their two sons. The now-grown brothers can't recall the cruel arrangement without choking up on camera.

In due time, Stories morphs into a detective tale about the identity of Polley's biological dad, playfully introducing a red herring. Disappointed in Michael, who never fulfilled his promise as a writer, Diane left the family for two months to take an acting job in Montreal. There she was known to have had an affair and returns home pregnant. The giveaway is baby Sarah's red hair, among siblings who are all dark. In a series of moving encounters in the film's “present,” Polley finally locates her biological father—who looks like a cross between Sean Penn and Einstein—and ends up embracing a second family. A new dimension—and potential conflict—is introduced when the gentleman states, “The story of Diane is only mine to tell.”

Overall, it's Polley's narrative inventiveness that lifts Stories high above your standard earnest doc. In one playful strategy, Polley inserts new “home movies” into the film, using old Kodachrome. Perhaps it's a spoiler to reveal that only 30 percent of the film is actual footage from the family; the rest of it is cast, staged film. Polley's ally in this legerdemain is her brilliant DP Iris Ng. As for Diane and the family, it's for the viewer to decide in this game of mirrors who's “real” and who's portrayed by an actor. Thank Polley's brother, casting director John Buchan, for the sleight of hand, which enables her to distance herself from intensely personal material. Stories also deliberately courts an amateurish vibe; one “home movie” flips upside-down. Even the ragtime score sometimes sounds like someone's untalented relative is pounding the keyboard.

Far from a cerebral exercise, Stories packs an emotional punch, as when Michael thanks Sarah's biological dad for giving him Sarah, “the greatest gift of my life.” Polley has created her own hybrid, a pungent, richly textured blend of feature and documentary.