Director: Sarah Polley
Cast: Michael Polley, Mark Polley, Diane Polley, Joanna Polley, John Buchan, Harry Gulkin
Running time: 108 min
Release: June 28
Certain Buddhist sects have removed the concept of an ‘afterlife’ from all supernatural connotations. They use it to refer to the cumulative effect of a given person on both the people around them and the generations to come—a life’s ripples. Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell might be thought of as the story of the afterlife of her mother Diane, a complex and effervescent woman who died when the director was eleven.
It’s an oral history of sorts; Polley induces family members and many others to talk to camera about her mother, and edits together the thematically similar moments. Her father Michael, a lifelong aspirant writer, provides his own charming narration. Home movies and fragments shot on Super 8 make the film more than a parade of talking heads. But the interviews are a great entertainment in themselves; the combination of self-possession and vulnerability that constitutes real charisma seems to be in the Polley DNA. What Stories We Tell really is, though, is a record of some tough detective work.
If this is the only review you read of Stories We Tell, don’t read any others. Go see the film as soon as you can and watch Polley tug the skeletons out of the family closet. It’s impossible to talk in any detail about the film without some of them tumbling prematurely out. Polley goes in rigorous pursuit of the truth about her mother’s life, sparing her own family none of the need for emotional insight that propelled her first two films, Away from Her and Take This Waltz. The camera sticks around to record the impact of every revelation—we’re talking emotional verisimilitude as well as just sticking to the facts. We learn the Polley family’s private language, that intuitive sense of the sayable and the unsayable that all families have and that creates the dynamic of every gathering from Sunday dinners to funerals. This means it’s all the more effective when one of the main players insists that the story Polley tells is theirs alone, that the oral history approach constitutes a deliberate fudging of the facts, in one of the film’s final scenes.
There are going to be problems when you try to create a solid narrative out of a big messy family story; if it’s still going to hit an audience the way most films do, things must be excluded. The use of Super 8, the YouTube generation’s visual synonym for memory, might strike some viewers as syrupy-sentimental. But Polley respects the important things, the stories; everything significant is said and said again by a chorus of voices and the bits in between are like a scrim for the big stuff to play out in front of. If you’re skeptical, imagine pursuing the same project with your own family secret. That sort of thought experiment might be reason enough to go see this big, brave film.