Stories We Tell (2012), directed by Sarah Polley

Every family has a story, but most are not lucky enough to have a prestigious filmmaker among them. Or maybe they’re lucky not to, depending on your point of view.

Personally I think we would all be blessed to have a Sarah Polley in our midst, who could tell all our stories with the same grace, bravery and insight that she has brought to her own family’s somewhat sordid tale.

Briefly, the set-up is this: Polley, a renowned Canadian actor and director (Away From Her, Take This Waltz), lost her mother to cancer when Polley was a little girl. She grew up hearing jokes that her father was not really her father, that her mother had had an affair and Polley was the result. Nobody thought there was any truth to the jokes, until a revelation was made and they were all of a sudden no longer funny…

Polley’s great documentary, Stories We Tell, is about this chapter in her family’s life, but it is also about much more than that. It’s about stories themselves, and how they change depending on who is telling them. It’s about the finite nature of memory. It’s about how an event, an action, a single decision, can affect so many people in such a variety of ways. It’s about the telling and the about the interpretation.

For the doc Polley interviews seemingly everyone connected with the event: her family, family friends, people who knew her mother, even the man connected with the affair. Her goal is to find out the “truth,” but also to investigate the very nature of “truth.”

Spoilers.

One of my favourite aspects of the film was its inconsistencies and it’s “mistakes.” I like moments, for instance, when the narration (read by Polley’s “father”) says something about Polley being speechless while the film shows Polley laughing and talking loudly. I like when the “old footage” reveals itself to be fake as it becomes modern, and later as the very creative process behind the doc is revealed.

I like how some of the “characters” in the film object to its creation.

What this achieves is an elevation of the subject matter to something greater than a mere story of an affair. It’s about family, on one level, and the choices we make in life, their impact and how, with the benefit of retrospect, we can accept the bigger picture. But it also tackles the way we all internalize these events, and how we broadcast them to others, how we communicate to one another as family, lovers, humans. It speaks to the role in society that stories play.

And then even that approach is questioned as perhaps a shield for Polley to shield herself from an even deeper truth: her own reaction to the story.

One character tells Polley he believes the story should only be told by the principle players, because only they know the truth of the event. He objects to others being involved. Polley recognizes this point of view, but ultimately rejects it in favour of a movie interested in the larger scope and the deeper impact. This is a wise move, because then the film does not become about the “truth”, which is really only interesting to those involved, but about the nature of “truth” and its wider impact.

The film is called Stories WE Tell for a reason. It could have been called The Awful Truth, but that was already taken and wouldn’t be the same movie.

Stories We Tell is a multilayered, touching, intelligent film, that is also a lot of fun at moments. Even the very final moment is infuriating and hilarious all at once. The film is tad long and could have done with some cuts (it has that modern problem of seeming to end three or four times), but in general it is extremely well crafted. Polley is a true talent.

Stories We Tell is in cinemas now.