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Stories We Tell

2012 | 108 min | PG-13 | 1.85:1

Stories We Tell


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Theatrical release date

 17 May, 2013
 28 June, 2013

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Stories We Tell Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, May 30, 2013

From the outside looking in, it seems rather insistent of director Sarah Polley to present a documentary with her own family as the subject, suggesting an insufferably narcissistic viewing experience where the artist purges her demons for the world to see. However, “Stories We Tell” isn’t that shameless, embarking on a riveting odyssey of emotion, revelation, and storytelling perspective as it examines a most unusual situation of bifurcated love, resulting in a mystery of sorts involving a question of paternity and the very essence of family as Polley collects the jigsaw puzzle pieces of her life. While I can understand any reluctance to view the personal business of others, Polley moves beyond the routine of therapy to shape an expressive and beautifully considerate documentary.

You might know Sarah Polley best as an actress, starring as a little girl in Terry Gilliam’s “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” while her adult work includes the “Dawn of the Dead” remake. For her third feature-length directorial outing, Polley has elected to turn inward, focusing on the marriage of her parents, Michael and Diane, two actors with striking personality differences who encountered a few bumps of commitment during their time together in the 1970s. Despite the presence of universal disproportion, there is more to the story than simple domestic discord, requiring a community of voices to help paint a particularly complex portrait of confusion, with Polley calling on siblings, friends of the family, and outsiders to help fill in a few of the considerable holes in the tale. There’s also Michael, who accepts narration duties as his own daughter sorts through the knotted moments of their life, working to complete unfinished business that’s been eating away at her for years now, endeavoring to find the edges of a situation that’s disturbed what she holds dear.

Everything about “Stories We Tell” is presented with layers, including the moviemaking itself, where Polley photographs herself creating the documentary, interviewing the participants and directing Michael in a recording studio as her father works through the provided text. It’s a film within a film point of view that helps to understand Polley’s mindset when attacking such personal stories. There’s also a question of evidence as the feature supplies a steady stream of Super 8 footage, though only a small portion of the haul is real, with dramatic recreations employed to detail key individuals in social and domestic settings, though, to her credit, the leap between fact and fiction is seamless, revealing the trick during the end credits when actors are identified as “Michael” and “Diane,” exposing the convincing artifice. “Stories We Tell” is a film about uncovering truth, yet Polley employs a great amount of manipulation as glue to hold the effort together, adding to the strange mystique of the picture and its snowballing sense of disclosure.

Polley’s narrative is never streamlined, constantly shifting to reveal nuggets of information that rework the overall saga of Michael and Diane. While the couple was clearly in love, dysfunction, distance, and expectation soon divided the household, leading to possible infidelity while Diane was away working on a play, enlivened by her fresh surroundings and the attention of others. Enter film producer Harry Gulkin, an admirer of Diane’s who comes to play a prominent role in the story once a question of paternity is raised, leaving Polley in a particularly uncomfortable position of researcher as she begins to pore over the evidence, afraid to push her fragile father into depression after collecting such sensitive information. While it seems absurdly indulgent to follow Polley’s intimate investigation, “Stories We Tell” elects to expose its heart in full, touching on common unknowns concerning parental actions, while time with the director’s siblings provide a few wrenching confessions of abandonment. Diane’s eventual death from cancer is also examined, leaving the most important figure in the documentary a question mark Polley works diligently to solve, using screentime to reexamine her mother in a compassionate manner.

“Stories We Tell” is nonlinear and at times a bit skittish, focusing on Harry’s reluctance to take part in the documentary, afraid to relinquish his feelings to Polley’s editorial control. It’s honest work despite its use of recreations, using the influence of cinema to attack profound feelings of love and loss in a warmly artistic manner, thus providing newfound clarity to age-old confusion. It’s a beautifully measured, smartly assembled feature, but its most important quality is soulfulness, dissecting an exquisitely mystifying and painful series of revelations with an eye toward providing comfort for everyone involved. Polley’s not picking at a scab for easy melodrama, she’s examining the fabric of her life, marveling over the personalities and remarkable human behaviors that have shaped her into the woman she is today.

Starring: Sarah Polley
Director: Sarah Polley

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