director Sarah Polley
I like Sarah Polley. I think she’s cute. She’s a good actress. She makes pretty interesting movies, sometimes pretty good ones. I’ve hardly seen them all. In fact, I hadn’t yet seen any of the films that she had directed, though they have gotten good reviews. Drama as a genre doesn’t intrigue me greatly.
But in Stories We Tell she delves into documentary, a very personal form of documentary about a very personal aspect of her life: her family, her conception, her upbringing, her paternity.
There is an aspect of mystery to the story, as she and her family experienced it. Her mother and father were stage actors, though her father got a regular job to support the family. Her mother had had a prior marriage with children from it, whom she lost in a precedent-setting divorce settlement. And her mother died young and vibrant of cancer.
Only the story was that Sarah didn’t resemble her father and that her mother may have had an affair with another actor back at the time of her conception. And the secrets that were kept past her mother’s death finally come out about 30 years later as she and the family, her father, brothers and sisters, and the many people in and around them come to terms with the lives they led, the stories they told and were told, and the realities lurking behind the facades.
So the mystery is rather obvious. The paternity is in question. It wouldn’t be a “story” if her father turned out to be her father, right?
At first I found some aspect of this investigation oddly self-indulgent, but as the story unfolds and both her biological father as well as her truly parental father come to terms with the truths, that the idea of telling the story belongs to each person in different ways. It’s clear that there are more than one storyteller here and Polley’s film attempts to address that.
As documentary goes, there is deceit here. Home movies are “re-created” though suggested to have been real. The narration, by her father, who we see in the studio, working through the text with Sarah in the sound room, shows its artifice but plays with the sense of who wrote the script. At times, it’s meant to sound as though her father wrote it, is telling his own story, at times that he is reading something he hasn’t read before. It’s intentional muddle. Obfuscation. And that is doubtlessly her point.
At the end of the day, it’s a moving and interesting exploration of family, lies, hidden truths, stories told, then re-told, given the various slants and perspectives of all of those still around to contribute their thoughts. Not comprehensively, far from objectively, though the suggested objectivity comes from the amalgam of all the various subjectivities therein. And interesting film, most certainly. A sensitive, melancholy tale.