Actor turned director Sarah Polley (Away From Her) makes her documentary debut in spectacular fashion with Stories We Tell, an intimate, revealing and intensely personal project focusing on her family and in particular her mother, whose life was cut short by cancer when Polley was just 11 years old. She mixes present-day interviews with her close family and friends, home movies and both audio and visual footage of her father recording his memoir. What good is the latter, you might ask, as her father does? Therein lies the rub.
Some documentaries tackle world issues, attempting to probe the depths of a societal issue in search of at the very least discussion if not a viable answer. This is not one of those films. Polley skilfully holds a mirror up to her own upbringing and leaves no stone unturned when it comes to her complex and often surprising ancestral story. She frequently pulls the rug out from under her audience but somehow in a welcoming rather than frustrating way, while at the same time making you feel like you’re going on her journey of self and past discovery right along with her.
As it goes on more and more is revealed about Polley’s past, how her family were before she came along and, at one point, even laying bare the fact that her mother almost had her aborted. Heartbreaking stuff. It would have been easy to hide these sorts of details and make it a candy-coated account but Polley clearly isn’t interested in that. It’s a refreshing all-or-nothing approach that benefits the doc greatly, giving it a lasting impact it might otherwise have lacked.
Polley’s film is completely open and honest, not just with the story its telling but in how its telling it, including little quippy moments of commentary from her siblings about the way she’s going to edit the footage together that would be left on the cutting room floor by most directors. By trying to get the whole story of what happened, talking to everyone involved even if it was only tangentially she’s trying to paint a complete picture, for herself as much as the audience. One of her interviewees even points out that allowing everyone to have their say as opposed to telling it from one perspective lacks truth but that’s only true if you’re on the inside. The complete package, as its presented here, grabs at the heart of that truth and puts it on full display.
Polley doesn’t seem to know quite when to end things, with many moments in the last 10 minutes or so fighting to be that perfect sign-off line, but by that point she’s told such a fascinating and heartfelt story in such a compelling way that it gets away with it. It’s indulgent to a point but that doesn’t always necessarily have to be a bad thing when the story and the filmmaking is this good.
There’s something universally truthful in Polley’s haunting documentary. Everyone has a story, to quote the film, and while this may be her’s it has the power to make you feel like you’re part of it. It’s an insightful revelation of an eventful family history filled with as much joy as tragedy that speaks to how and why we all tell stories of our own lives more than the what of the stories themselves. This is powerful and brutally honest documentary filmmaking at its best.