Is it a documentary or isn’t it? That’s the question Stories We Tell, a wonderful and provocative movie from Sarah Polley, the Canadian child actor-turned-director (and still actor—a pivotal sequence supposedly took place while Sarah, garbed in neanderthal makeup for a gig, sprinted out of the studio in a rush of emotional panic), asks. Spontaneous as any good true-to-life drama (Polley interviews, or more accurately interrogates, many of her blood relatives and close family friends), scripted as any well-written story, that’s Stories We Tell. The film—I’m hesitant to categorize it, as Polley makes use of Super 8 “documentary” footage that so closely resembles veritable happenings, it surprises to learn that these scenes feature actors—simultaneously combines naturalism, stagecraft, personal history, mystery, and improvisation; I imagine that Polley planned a written story with the narrative left openly ambiguous, however weird that sounds.
Ostensibly, our leads are her family members, like her father, her (half) brothers and (half) sisters, with Polley herself remaining off-screen aside from a few commands in the recording studio that her dad repeat some not-coincidentally sensitive family info for all of us to hear. (These are the only moments that feel rehearsed, though my guess is that was intentional.) Polley has gathered them to speak about their vivacious and carefree mother, named Diane (an actress herself), but human nature and our normal, instinctual method of answering questions dictate that no one give straight answers, that to tell the story of someone’s mother is to tell your own story, and that the harmonization of everyone’s version of events turns what seems like selfish rambling into a profound exercise in cross-generational communication. Polley invites us into the lives of real people, but does not try to pass off fabrication as truth even though she sells, technically, a documentary. Rather, no obvious truth exists, only circumstantial evidence; you compare each family member’s story of Diane (and Sarah, and Sarah’s dad Michael, and Diane’s friend Harry, and this guy Geoff, and…everyone else) to synthesize what makes sense, and the clues to the final puzzle answer a family riddle while leaving open-ended several strands of inquiry. No narrator or story requires omniscience, nor should we expect as much from our raconteurs, and you’ll leave Stories We Tell with a better, if incomplete, understanding of the Polley family, for secrets remain distant, our love for our families continues eternally but privately, and our stories and dreams and insights only tell a fraction of the tale.
Diane, who died from cancer while Sarah was still young, in many ways charted Sarah’s course. An actress herself Diane served as a guidepost and symbolic tacit encouragement that if acting did not guarantee success or semblance of steadiness (virtually all interviewees recall that Diane was a flighty and not-always-efficient multitasker) it permitted a certain freedom; an actor on the road has little difficulty meeting new people and inhabiting bizarre characters. The sheer fact that Sarah has approached her brothers and sisters and friends with the goal (or perhaps not—Sarah indicates in her opening lines of interrogation her doubts regarding how this personal project will ripen into something public and worthy of distribution) 0f broadcasting many enigmas long kept hush-hush shows that Sarah takes after her mother’s independent spirit, leaving her friends and family bristling at the thought of what Sarah is doing.
Diane and Michael at various points carried on a steamy and sensual love affair, and during one of those periods of torrid physical and emotional intercourse Diane became pregnant with Sarah (her youngest) and considered an abortion—but that’s not the REAL SECRET, as Diane made a choice and Sarah was born. Diane and Michael weren’t always in love; they fell for each other in kicks and starts, and Diane engaged in affairs while Michael retreated to solitude and solitaire—but that’s not the REAL SECRET. Diane had a husband before Michael entered the picture; happiness did not shine through that previous marriage, though it produced two pre-Sarah children—but that’s not the REAL SECRET. One of those older children is gay—but that’s not the REAL SECRET. I’ve deployed a modicum of sarcasm because although each of these details pales in comparison to the ultimate reveal (which pertains to Michael and a couple other men and a long-running joke that would be at home in Maury Povich’s studio; I’ll say no more), none is minor, and altogether they evidence the several possible narrative directions in which Polley could have driven her picture.
Ultimately, though, I perfectly understand why Polley began with Diane and ended with a story that involves her, and none of her siblings, directly (the siblings being involved importantly, but only tangentially). An easy criticism of the movie—one I’ve seen repeated in several reviews, almost all positive—would apply to Polley’s navel-gazing, the criticism implicating that because the story concerns Polley and her family, a beacon of pretension attaches in assuming that non-relatives might have an interest in her kin. Such a criticism is outcome-driven, though; if a likable filmmaker sees a pet project through to fruition, only laudatory plaudits follow, leaving an unlikeable one to suffer indignation and accusations of pretentiousness and, worse, banality. I’d hope to reject criteria this subjective, as I find I’m most drawn to individualized auteurs with unique perspectives. You can discover my position even with limited precedent here if you peruse my earlier essay on Girls, for example; I wrote there that we should praise writers and directors for imparting personal and sensitive stories and in the process summoning whatever personal demons they must confront. That one writer can’t make her story perfectly plausible or familiar to any given person is no fault of the writer, nor should we demand that she tailor her story to every single audience member.
Polley is no different in that she communicates her story, though Polley’s personal storytelling methods are contradictorily magnanimous in allowing for others to have their say: Her story requires that everyone else with a glimpse of the goings-on or a parting word can weigh in. One of the triumphs of Stories We Tell arrives towards the end, after we’ve watched as Michael painfully and awkwardly blathers the story of his family into the microphone, with Sarah sitting on the other side of the glass, asking for him to repeat all the intimate tidbits for the sake of clarification. The clarification comes not from him speaking louder (in Michael’s old age, someone probably requests that he SPEAK LOUDER seventy times per day) but from an awareness that the stories told have themselves been layered and retold over and over before Sarah—and Michael, who’s revealed to have actually written his monologue—fashioned them into something more self-contained.
Who’s story is it? Sarah’s name headlines the credits as writer and director, and surely it was her decision to employ hired actors to impersonate some important people in her life and perchance fool the audience into believing the authenticity of the grainy images that match the interview dialogue all too well. But Michael, whose writing Diane had once sought to stimulate, must have contributed to the finished product, in that he actually sits in a recording studio and, in many respects, is the hero of the movie (while Sarah, whose life is most affected by all that’s told, remains behind the camera).
This isn’t how we think we tell stories. If I’m in the midst of a conversation with you, rambling on in my politically incorrect way regarding whatever trivial matter has consumed my thoughts, I imagine that my words belong to me alone—except they don’t. Whatever I say to you mostly has a root in some common, shared experience, or something I read (that somebody else wrote), or something I saw (in which somebody else participated), with me left to put my spin on things. If I’ve shared something with you, you might want to apply your own spin, too, and that’s what Polley’s getting at. There are some interviewees lacking excitement and disagreeing with the principle behind Sarah’s project and the collateral prying for which it calls, especially Harry, one of Diane’s flings from her time at the theater and away from home. This is a natural reaction, because we have a proprietary relationship to what we think are our stories. Everyone on camera speaks of Sarah and Diane and Michael and others, but not always in the same way. Critically, the truth lies between the lines, and the closest Sarah (or we) can come is an approximation derived from hearing everyone at once. The idea is to realize that none of us own any truths greater than ourselves, and that what I’ll call synthetic truth will have to suffice. That’ll more than suffice: Interwoven stories provide an interesting and fluid basis from which to analyze each and every one of us—the devil’s in the details, and we all reveal a shit-ton about ourselves by the words we choose and in whether we want to be self-deprecating or arrogant or sad-sack or happy.
At its beginning, Stories We Tell quotes Margaret Atwood, suggesting that most stories, as you tell them, are hazy until the end, when all grows clear. That’s mostly true; our own narratives bring clarity to the confusion that life creates. But that haziness never really dissipates, because answering one question may open others. The end result of storytelling, and of Sarah Polley’s method of storytelling, is part resolution and part inquisition, and for whatever accusations of narcissism might be thrown her way, I find it hard to equate narcissism with inquisitiveness. I know a little more about Sarah Polley and her family, but when “storytelling” begs for little more than turning on the camera, I can’t attribute the story to her alone. How much is true? Probably most of it, but it’s better to sit back and watch people talk than listen to someone claim to have grasped it all.