Movie Review: Stories We Tell

Jun 7, 2013

In 2006, talented Canadian actress Sarah Polley took a chance on making her first feature as a writer-director. The film was Away From Her, a sad yet hopeful story about a woman with Alzheimers, which managed to nab Oscar nominations for both Polley for her screenplay, and her star Julie Christie for Best Actress. Now Polley is back with another journey of discovery, but more about her than anyone else, in Stories We Tell. Polley’s mother died early, and as she grew up, kept hearing rumours that her father might not actually be her father. Both parents had been actors and stories abounded. Dad was an introvert, who could do well without a lot of people around. Mom was a loving, living free spirit who needed to express herself.

In her journey to discover the truth about her lineage, Polley has assembled a collection of family, friends, and acquaintances to document her own journey of discovery within this group of storytellers. And much like the classic film Rashomon, the stories in Stories We Tell depends on who’s telling his or her version of the story.

Polley’s mother Diane died much too young from cancer. However, her father Michael is a participant in the unraveling of her biological history. She also talks with siblings, half-siblings, and family friends in trying to piece together her own story, which makes Sarah Polley not only a filmmaker but also a sort of detective, out to solve a cold case.

Fortunately, coming from a background that included actors, Polley has plenty of archival material to work with in the form of home movies. That footage, combined with what was shot in the pursuit of the truth, makes for an intriguing tale indeed. However, to reveal more about what she discovers would not only be a “spoiler,” it would also be unconscionable, as this is a film of discovery that you should be able to discover yourself as the layers are all peeled away in search of the truth and history related to this fascinating filmmaker.

Polley’s regular musical collaborator, Jonathan Goldsmith, has done a wonderful job of arranging various tunes to comprise a solo piano score which helps punctuate the various footage, interviews, and scenes of Polley herself during the filmmaking process. If you have ever considered making a documentary about your own family, you would do well to see Stories We Tell beforehand. 

And although Polley does manage to stretch the material a bit too long, as filmmakers sometimes do in the making of very personal projects, don’t give up on it. Stick with Stories We Tell through the ending and into the credits, as part of your own journey of discovery.

 The PG-13 rated Stories We Tell is now showing at Clifton’s Esquire Theatre.