Stories We Tell isn’t concerned with the truth—its focus is on exploring the phenomenon of storytelling. Why do we tell stories? Why do we need them?
Stories We Tell
“Every family has a story.” Canadian actor and director Sarah Polley (Away From Her, Take This Waltz) lost her mom, Diane, to cancer in 1990. In Stories We Tell, her quietly spectacular documentary, she sits with her family and friends and asks them to “tell the whole story [about Diane], from start to finish.” The stories that result are lovingly nostalgic, but gradually, fascinatingly, they begin to clash and contradict one another. Polley’s goal isn’t to piece together a definitive portrait of her mother.“…the truth about the past is often ephemeral and difficult to pin down” says Polley in the film. Stories We Tell isn’t concerned with the truth—its focus is on exploring the phenomenon of storytelling. Why do we tell stories? Why do we need them? Most importantly, how does our perspective on events affect our memory of them?
Polley plays detective in the film, interrogating and cajoling clues out of her subjects about the ‘true’ history of Diane and her family, though no one’s story stands out as definitive (Polley played it fair in the editing room). Through the process of interrogation, a dark family secret is uncovered that turns the entire film—and the family—on its head. This is where the film gets really good. It’s like watching a hybrid documentary/soap opera—there are surprises, mysteries, revelations, and even a twist or two (one of the most shocking moments comes after the credits start rolling). It’s thrilling, with emotional highs and lows that are intensified by the fact that we’re watching real people—a real family—have their world shaken and turned upside-down.
Of all the voices we hear, the most dominant belongs to Polley’s British-born father, Michael, who narrates the film, telling his version of Diane’s story by reciting his eloquently written memoirs. His voice is enchanting, richly textured with classic English charm, and lends a surprising sense of magic to the film. Polley makes the brilliant decision to film Michael recording the voice-overs in a sound studio as she directs him from behind a mixing board “Dad, can you just go back over that one line?” These segments are touching and feel distinct, as Michael isn’t being questioned like the other subjects. Seeing Polley gaze at her father with gentle love and adoration is guaranteed to elicit fuzzy feelings.
The talking heads are filmed á la the standard documentary style, sat on a couch or chair. Polley constantly reminds us that there’s a production going on, showing her siblings asking her how they look on camera (“Is this a good angle for me?”), and allowing them to break the fourth wall. “Who cares about our stupid family?” says Polley’s sister. Beautifully staged Super 8 reenactments of key events in her family’s history add warm nostalgia to the equation.
Diane’s memory permeates every minute of the film, and the family speaks in great detail about the woman that she was, but I’ll let you discover all that on your own. This act of discovery is crucial to the experience—peeling back the multiple layers of Stories We Tell is exhilarating. The surprises hidden within are jaw-droppers, which is why I danced around nearly every plot point in this review—the less you know about the story going into it, the further your jaw will drop. Reflecting on Stories We Tell, I think of my family and our stories. I can’t put my finger on exactly why we tell them or why we love them so much, but after experiencing Polley’s film, I’m sure of two things—stories are important, and every one of us is an unreliable narrator.