A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
Families create their own narratives. Stories are passed on from generation to generation, and in this way the past continues to live, but it can also be obscured or distorted. Joan Didion famously wrote, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." Family arguments often come down to who "owns" the narrative, or which version is decided upon as the "true" one. Sarah Polley's fascinating documentary, "Stories We Tell," is ostensibly about her mother, Diane Polley, who died in 1990. A powerful and thoughtful film, it is also not what it at first seems, which is part of the point Polley appears to be interested in making. Can the truth ever actually be known about anything?
In speaking about "Stories We Tell," it is important to avoid revealing the surprises hidden within the film, surprises of fact and surprises of Polley's structure, because the discovery of said surprises is where the film packs its greatest and most indelible punch. The surprises do not operate as cheap "Gotcha" moments, but instead draw back veils to show levels, shades, nuances. Diane Polley comes to us in fragments, and we are forced to re-adjust our interpretation of her throughout the film as new details are revealed. At one point, one of Polley's interview subjects balks at the idea of having everyone tell the same story. As far as he is concerned, only two people have the "right" to tell that story, and it is the two people involved. Otherwise, he says, "you can't ever touch bottom." Inadvertently, in his criticism, he expresses Polley's whole theme.
Polley calls her interview subjects "The Storytellers," and they include her older sisters, Susy and Joanna, and her older brothers, John and Mark, and other important figures in her mother's past. Polley has said she was not interested in being an "omniscient" presence, and we can hear Polley's questions and laughter from behind the camera. Her father, Michael Polley, is an actor as well (familiar to anyone who was a fan of the Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows, where, incidentally, Sarah Polley had a role in the third season). "Stories We Tell" begins with Sarah setting up her father in a recording booth, to do the narration for the film, which (we find out later) he wrote. So there is already a distancing element in place. It's a film about making a film, and, as Polley tells her father, she sees the interviews as a kind of "interrogation process."
She asks each storyteller to "tell the story from the beginning until now," and as they begin, hesitantly at first, Polley supplements the story with old photographs and home movies: beautiful footage of her mother, cavorting on the beach, laughing at parties or around the pool, and, fascinatingly, singing "Ain't Misbehavin'" in what looks like an old black-and-white audition tape. Diane Polley is described by one and all as a woman who wanted to live life to the fullest. One person says that her walk was so emphatic "she made the record skip," an eloquent image. One family friend admits in an interview that she always sensed that Diane "had secrets," which turns out to be true. She was an actress, but she gave that up to have her family. The marriage to Michael was happy at first, but discontent grew. Michael was a solitary type of guy, and Diane loved crowds and excitement.