“Stories We Tell”: Sarah Polley’s Documentary About Her Family

Sarah Polley, who’s been known as an actor, singer, screenwriter, director, political activist, and probably more, is currently receiving a lot of attention for the documentary she steered called Stories We Tell. Whose stories? Her own family’s.

Via the description on Rotten Tomatoes we get a good sense of this film:

She playfully interviews and interrogates a cast of characters of varying reliability, eliciting refreshingly candid, yet mostly contradictory, answers to the same questions. As each relates their version of the family mythology, present-day recollections shift into nostalgia-tinged glimpses of their mother, who departed too soon, leaving a trail of unanswered questions. Polley unravels the paradoxes to reveal the essence of family: always complicated, warmly messy and fiercely loving.

A Form of Therapy? Or Filmmaking?

Polley once posted that personal documentaries “can feel more like a form of therapy than actual filmmaking.” And she didn’t want that to be the case with hers. So what Polley decided to do was use her family’s story as an example of the “meta”: how we all make sense of our own stories, how we tell them, how we make ourselves heard.

She couldn’t have known beforehand how emotionally painful it would turn out to be. According to various reports online, it took her five years to make the film and was at great personal cost.

The Stories We All Tell

Stephen Whitty, The Star-Ledger, aptly sets up the premise and universality of Stories We Tell:

The requests usually come out at big family dinners or long drives, as bored children — who are never bored by hearing about themselves — begin to pose questions.

‘Tell me about me as a baby.’ ‘How long were you and Daddy together before you had me?’ ‘Wait, I was really scared of my closet?’ And parents answer, and the answers become stories, and the stories get told and retold as entertainment.

But sometimes the little flourishes begin to turn into falsehoods, and the real truth gets lost.

The Big Reveal

Because of the need to avoid spoiling it, Stories We Tell is a movie short on long reviews. The following critics explain further:

Andrew O’Hehir, Salon: “It’s pretty tough to discuss this movie without disclosing its big ‘reveal,’ a fulcrum or pivot point around which the whole story turns, and which shapes Polley’s method of telling it. Let’s just say that what begins as an apparently winsome memoir of her late mother, an effervescent and outgoing casting director and sometime actress named Diane, grows steadily deeper and opens the doors to ever more hidden rooms.”

Dana StevensSlate: “I’ll reveal very little about the vexed family history in question, because the onion that is Stories We Tell is more rewarding to peel yourself.”

Owen GleibermanEntertainment Weekly: “By the end, the rug gets pulled out from under us, showing that even the reality we think we see may be an illusion.”

In Conclusion

Dana Stevens, Slate: “The document Polley has pieced together from their joint reconstruction of her mother’s past is a formally fascinating work of art, a compassionate portrait of a complex, flawed, and ultimately unknowable woman, and without a doubt one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.”

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