Stories We Tell

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.

Ted (2012), directed by Seth MacFarlane

Take This Waltz (2011), directed by Sarah Polley

I recognize that these are two pretty strange films to look at side by side. But I saw them both this weekend and I’m going to squeeze out some potentially thin thematic connections. Mainly though, I only had time to write one post. Anyway, don’t give me any grief about it.

I went into Ted with high hopes for an outrageous, stupid, foul-mouthed, immature blow out. With MacFarlane at the helm I figured it wouldn’t disappoint. I was wrong.

Here’s my main problem with Ted, and really, with a lot of MacFarlane products. While on one hand it tries to be subversive by making fun of everything and tearing popular culture a new one, it also revels in pop culture, which unfortunately in this means framing the crude, unusual humour in a plot that is so cliched, overwrought and overbearing (pun intended) that it ends up ruining the humour.

I mean, really MacFarlane? A story about an immature man having trouble growing up with a shrew of a girlfriend riding his back to be more of a responsible adult?

I don’t find the use of the word “fag” offensive in MacFarlane movies, because it’s used so ubiquitously that you know he’s doing it to get a rise out of you. For some reason I can appreciate that. It’s intentional and flies in the face of political correctness. It may be discomforting but it’s supposed to be. I like immature humour.

But to have all that in such a weak sauce plot really ruins the whole thing. Could MacFarlane really find nothing better for Mila Kunis to do than give Wahlberg a hard time and demand he stop being friends with his cool, talking Teddy Bear? Could we not find anything more interesting for this plot to revolve around than a guy struggling to stop just smoking weed everyday and become an “adult”?

It’s just such a tired premise. And MacFarlane does nothing new with it. Having that same old story only with a living Teddy Bear doesn’t offer any new perspective or comment or joke on the same old story. It’s just the same old story. With a Teddy Bear.

That said, I still somewhat liked it. The bear is hilarious, I love Wahlberg in comedies, all the Flash Gordon stuff is great. There are some genuinely funny moments and lines. It should have been a fantastic comedy.

But then there’s the rest, including the tacked on, ridiculous kidnap plot with Giovanni Ribisi. I don’t know, it just kind of ruined the whole thing for me.

And so that brings us to this movie’s opposite. The very serious, meticulously crafted, mature Take This Waltz.

Surprisingly it’s better than Ted. That is such a snob thing to say, but if you knew how much I wanted Ted to be better than Take This Waltz you might not see me as a snob. Unfortunately this review might solidify that view.

Take This Waltz is Canadian treasure (and serious CineFile crush) Sarah Polley’s second directorial effort, after the much applauded Away From Her. It stars Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen as a young married couple in tough times. In comes dark, handsome Luke Kirby as Daniel to get Williams all riled up. Things get complicated.

This is a very bittersweet movie. It’s bitter because it’s all about relationships failing and a young woman who just can’t seem to be happy. It’s sweet because you understand what she is feeling and you like the characters and how honest they are with each other. At the end of the day though it’s mainly frustrating.

It’s a beautifully filmed movie, and with a wonderfully careful, honest look at relationships that really touches a note. The performances are complex and rich. Williams is fabulous as a character that you may not like, but will probably understand and sympathize with.

I know I didn’t like her. She does nothing to help herself. She relies totally on the men in her life to make her happy. She barely works. She acts like a needy child, which as Rogen’s character shows, can be both endearing and also incredibly annoying and frustrating.  She means well but doesn’t seem to have the capacity to know how to function in life. I wondered at times if she wasn’t slightly disabled.

I think some will have trouble getting past that. But I don’t think the movie owed us a character we like wholeheartedly. I enjoyed aspects of her, but even with her frustrating personality traits I still felt sorry for her and took away a lot from her relationships with men and friends and life. There’s a needy, childish, unsatisfied little Michelle Williams in all of us I guess. And at the same time all the other characters are imperfect. And that makes them compelling and relatable.

I really liked this movie, all told. Polley is a wonderful director with a great eye for visuals and a deep understanding of characters and tone. It’s an immersive experience, watching it, and one that you feel the better for having gone through. Even if, at the same time, you kind of want to jump off a bridge.

That said, it was a little long and could have used a little more humour.

In a perfect world they would have combined Ted and Take This Waltz. That way it would have been an interesting movie with a compelling plot AND have a talking Teddy Bear.

I warned you there would be weak links in this review.

Both movies are in theatres now.