Overview: Stories We Tell explores the nature of truth and storytelling while investigating an unraveling secret regarding director Sarah Polley’s family history. National Film Board of Canada; 2013; Unrated; 109 Minutes.
A Family of Storytellers: Pay attention to the position of the interviewed friends and family members. They are never centered in the frame, always pushed just to the right or left, filmed at an angle. Each testimonial is a skewed perspective of skewed perspective. But make no mistake, this movie isn’t about dishonesty. Having grown up in a remote backwoods community where storytelling isn’t just a pastime but a survival method, I can say with some assurance: Storytellers may not always be accurate, but they are never dishonest. Sarah Polley’s is a family of storytellers. Their collective kindness informs every scene. Their sins against one another are human sins – terrible and selfish indiscretions. But their compassion and understanding exhibit superhuman ability. They exchange amongst themselves saintlike forgiveness and empathy. Consider Sarah’s patience and strength just in being able to share the story of her situation, a situation that would existentially devastate the most well-adjusted individual. Or Michael’s quiet acceptance of blame for his wife’s affair or the total lack of anger from the subsequent discovery that his youngest daughter was not his biological offspring. About half of Stories We Tell is constructed from these sit-down interviews filmed within domestic spaces. The rest is old Super 8 home movies and home movie-style reenactments. On paper, none of that sounds very riveting. Yet it earns our invested attention like the finest suspense films. It delivers compassionate emotion of the purest sort, the sort that most romance films would only understand by following their lovelorn subjects past the credits and into a thirty year epilogue. The film works so surprisingly well in a narrative measure that we do not even realize midway through that we are participating in an essay about the age old struggle of truth vs. story and the measurement of influence that struggle has on every life.
Redemptive Effort: Polley’s Away from Her was possibly my favorite debut film for any director, fresh in the way that Badlands was fresh. Her second effort, not so much. On the heels of Take This Waltz, one of the most disappointing features for me in the past several years, the hyper-personal non-fiction of Stories We Tell had every right to venture into self-indulgence. And in a year of milestone film courage—Gravity, The Act of Killing, and Upstream Color all felt like pioneers of innovation in their respective film space—Stories We Tell, an early film festival release, could have easily settled into white noise. It was neither of these things. This film has no flaws. It is the best film from a watershed year of film courage and accomplishment.
Impossible to Prepare: This last statement is a bold one to make. How can this movie offer more than the greatest technical cinematic achievement of the young century and a documentary whose investigations have historical repercussions? Stories We Tell isn’t a movie concerned with the highest drama. The stakes are of moral but not mortal consequence. Yet, because of that, and because of the accessibility of these fully-realized characters whose realness is evident in every frame, this movie cuts even deeper. When Michael worries aloud that Sarah’s film might just be another subjectively manipulative conceit of the same story, a cognitive calculation to recreate the story the way the teller needs it to be heard, we realize that it is his truth that is being constantly rearranged. For Michael, all of these different versions of the same story are re-visitations of a painful reality. Later in the film, the impact of watching Polley’s father struggle to recall his final words to his dying wife is both heartbreaking and life-affirming, a testament to the power of brave and naked filmmaking. And this film stands with the bravest of all time. I’d bet that, now, Michael understands and appreciates its purpose.
Grade: A +