I have always liked Sarah Polley as an actor, she just has a lovely presence on screen, but lately she has been absent from screens because she has seemed to a found a calling in directing. As of now, I have yet to see her previous two features but by all accounts they are quite mature pieces of work. “Stories We Tell” is her third feature, but her first documentary and is her most personal film to date as the topic of the documentary is her own family, particularly her mother Diane who died from cancer when Sarah was relatively young.
What could come across as egotistical in lesser hands actually turns out to be a beautiful portrait of the mother she loved and lost, as well as the marriage she shared with her father, Michael. Being a story about her own family, Polley obviously has a wealth of interview subjects willing to talk to her, as she speaks to her brother and sisters, and friends of her mother from her acting days. What is interesting is how initially Polley’s siblings seem bemused by the fact that anyone would care in a story about their family, but as Sarah asks questions more and more confronting, they all seem to understand just how amazing the story really is and most get quite emotional re-telling their own points of view. Another thing that is quite fascinating is the way different people have completely different points of views or memories of the same moment in time, and this is ultimately where the title of the film comes from, as Sarah starts to realize that the way a person tells a story is just as important as the story itself.
You have to respect Sarah Polley and the way she handles the material of her documentary. Without giving anything away, it comes to light that Sarah’s mother had another life away from her family and the biggest surprise of the film has to do with Sarah herself. Instead of being precious and guarding these secrets, its Polley’s absolute honesty that makes this film works as well as it does. She doesn’t hide these (potentially painful) facts; instead she bravely presents the story as honestly as possible. Obviously with the story heavily involving Sarah herself, Polley becomes a presence on screen as well as behind it, which from a personal standpoint, I just loved seeing her again.
Instead of just making “Stories We Tell” a flat and dull talking heads piece by only focusing on her interview subjects, Polley does an amazing job of filming recreations of the stories being told. These are so impressively done that I was honestly fooled for the majority of the film’s duration thinking that they were real. During the film I was thinking just how lucky Polley was to have a wealth of all these old films featuring her mother, until Polley gives us a peak behind the curtain and shows us some of the behind the scenes in the making of these recreations. At once I felt both foolish and so impressed by Polley’s talents at making these “home movies” seem so real, as opposed to pieces being acted by professional actors. She has done an amazing job of creating an 8mm look to make the footage seem so authentic, as have the actors themselves.
Overall, I really enjoyed Sarah Polley’s intimate portrait of her deceased mother, Diane. While the film may be all about her mother, this is Polley’s film through and through; her honesty and artistry are what makes this small intimate family story so enticing and compelling. You cannot help but fall in love with Polley and her family who talk lovingly about their mother, even when speaking about things that Diane may have done in the past that may have hurt the family. Polley’s father, Michael, is particularly beautiful by holding no grudges and taking a lot of the blame for the things that went wrong. Also stick around during the end credits for the funniest reveal of the entire film; it is hilarious.