Director: Sarah Polley
Cast: Rebecca Jenkins, Peter Evans, Alex Hatz
Release Date: May 17th 2013
Like Sarah Polley’s 2006 feature Away from Her,her new film Stories we Tell is a deeply personal one. But instead of adapting a short story for the big screen here, she has instead turned the camera on members of her own family in a revealing documentary about her family’s past and the memories that they all hold dear.
In this film, the stars are members of Polley’s family who begin it by noting their hesitancy about the project. Who cares about their family, one person asks. And the answer, it turns out, should be all of us.
Soon enough, the focus turns to Sarah’s elusive and mysterious mother, Diane. Diane has long since passed away so she is recalled in fond stories where people reminisce about her smile and her “contagious personality.” But as many attest, she often seemed to be hiding secrets– which no one focused on because she was so captivating and delightful that it was hard to take your eyes off of her.
Secrets, however, have a way of always coming back.
This feature focuses on one such secret about Diane and how it was eventually revealed to Sarah and the members of her family. It started, like many secrets do, as a joke. A situation being laughed about at the kitchen table and around the living room that people brought up for the fun of it. But the jokes always had a nugget of truth to them, as the story reveals.
With this documentary, Polley stands nakedly at the center of it even as she spends much of it offscreen. Oftentimes, she’s behind the camera or watching her father read from a letter he once wrote. She feels like a bystander to her own past and in a large way, she is one. She couldn’t control where she came from or how she arrived on this planet. And so she sits passively by knowing that what she’s hearing is often true but also recognizing that every person brings to their story personal biases that could taint the narratives they tell.
At one point, there’s even talk that Sarah could’ve easily been aborted. Her mother was 42 at the time of the pregnancy and thought deeply about such a decision. She consulted a doctor (in her family) about it and even scheduled an appointment. But she couldn’t go through with it and suddenly changed her mind. Such a story would be hard to tell from any child’s perspective but Sarah accepts it as part of her family’s history. She may not like the idea but she includes it because it’s true and because it reveals what her mother was going through after her conception.
Such powerful honesty seems to be a trademark of Sarah’s in both her fictional films and now in this documentary. It’s an honesty that is worth celebrating, even as it seems harsh to the viewer and sometimes even the subject being interviewed. “You see what a vicious director you are,” Sarah’s father notes (jokingly) at one point near the film’s end. Vicious, it seems, is the wrong word for what she has done. Authentic seems to be the right one. Here, Sarah has taken an honest and authentic look at her past and it’s a compelling story that shouldn’t be missed.
Review by: John Hanlon