REVIEW: Stories We Tell [2012]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 108 minutes | Release Date: October 12th, 2012 (Canada)
Studio: Mongrel Media
Director(s): Sarah Polley
Writer(s): Sarah Polley

“Love is so short; forgetting is so long”

I remember seeing posters for Sarah Polley‘s newest work Stories We Tell affixed to storefront windows while walking down the streets of Toronto at last September’s 2012 Film Festival. It struck me as weird since she had just completed Take This Waltz the year before, itself five years after her critically acclaimed drama Away From Her. Knowing little of its content, I began gleaning details: it was a documentary, a personal story, and something one woman I overheard say would never play outside of Canada. Suffice it to say, I was highly intrigued and saddened because for all I knew this woman was correct in her assumption. However, while it’s as deeply personal and affecting as people discussed, this expose of familial secrets and the art of storytelling is a completely universal and relatable one.

Someone always utters that cruel joke about a child not being biologically related to the rest. We laugh by telling the innocently naïve they are adopted for no reason other than stirring the pot to see what excitement results. As the proverbial saying goes, it’s only fun until someone inevitably gets hurt. And while nothing seemed off at the time of Sarah’s birth, hindsight couldn’t help but bring back memories of secretive phone conversations, flippant asides about her once having bright red hair, and rumors swirling around matriarch Diane‘s two months abroad in Montreal for a play. What began as a joke by half-brother John Buchan about her father not being the man raising her—Michael—soon proved more truthful than anyone could have imagined at the time. Save Diane, of course.

Like all tragedies, though, Sarah would never have the chance to confront her mother about these allegations once cancer took her. At eleven-years old she was left alone with her Dad to build a bond that remains to this day while her older siblings were out of the house at school, etc. But as the years wore on and the facts began to rise up once again, interviews with her Mom’s chums from that long-gone period unearthed the truth she always knew was possible. Did Diane have an affair with Geoffrey Bowes like everyone thought? What did their co-star Tom Butler know? What did their producer friend Harry Gulkin know? And what about the rekindled love sparked between Diane and husband Michael due to the distance between them—that yearning to keep the family together?

Without giving anything away, Sarah does discover who her real father is. However, Stories We Tell is not about her quest towards this revelation. Sarah and her family knew the truth for a couple of years before she decided to put everything on the record; we aren’t watching her go person to person unearthing answers to the Polley family’s most salacious secret. Instead we catch the reactions, fleeting memories, and personal tales told about the days surrounding her conception by all those involved. Whether recollections by Michael or her biological father, clouded glimpses unwittingly seen by those in direct contact with Diane, or outsiders made aware of very specific moments along the journey, this film is concerned with the genesis of how we acknowledge history and the myriad interpretations ensuring the impossibility of one truth.

Polley does a brilliant job instilling this concept by exposing the artifice she utilizes to achieve what’s onscreen. Opening on her and Michael’s trek up the stairs to the recording studio where he will orate his personal recounting of the tale written for Sarah upon learning the truth shows their candid rapport, helps explain her desire to set up an interrogation, and the deep-seeded emotions neither can separate from the clinical process of putting everything on camera. We see Sarah nervously play with her necklace while directing her father’s words in the adjacent room. We are made aware of her siblings’ humor and fear of opening up through footage any other film would have left on the cutting room floor. And we really get to the heart of every player’s intentions juxtaposed with Sarah’s own.

The question of ownership comes up often, as does the idea of hypotheticals as fact. Even though Michael and Diane’s lover experienced everything first hand, neither version is truer than the other’s when ripped out of the intimate context built in their respective heads. All anyone can do—audience, interviewees, Sarah—is process the information and project upon it his/her own desires and morality and acceptance and rejection. Mark Polley has every right to be disappointed in his mother’s actions. Joanna Polley is allowed to know her Mom was loved whether or not by the man she loved more. Sarah’s biological father can hold onto the idyllic, epic love story he believes he shared with Diane. And Michael can be comforted by his absolution and understanding of each event because the end result produced a daughter he loves.

Not everyone involved is happy about the film and that’s okay. It’s an extremely personal story bringing out details of abuse, loss, indifference, and deceit most families leave buried from themselves let alone the world. But one doesn’t have to look further than Sarah and Michael’s relationship to figure out the whys and hows. While she now has a second family to love and love her, the fact the man who raised her is still Dad never wavers. They can look back at Diane with fondness, intrigue, and forgiveness because they understand their own shortcomings and know where they stand today. Maybe she was a flirt, an adulterer, a free-spirited woman with needs and desires—that’s up to interpretation. We do know she was a mother, wife, lover, and human being, though—flawed and perfect like everyone.

[1] Director Sarah Polley (left) and Michael Polley (right) in scene from STORIES WE TELL. Credit: Courtesy of Roadside Attractions
[2] Scene from STORIES WE TELL. Credit: Ken Woroner
[3] Michael Polley (left) and Director Sarah Polley (right) in scene from STORIES WE TELL. Credit: Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

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