If you think you know anyone, even your closest family member, you may be wrong. Canadian director Sarah Polley makes that vividly clear with her new film Stories We Tell. After losing her mother Diane to cancer, Polley tries to demystify some of the subtle mysteries behind the woman who bore her into this world. Unfurling like a rosebud into infinity, the more Polley explores, the more unknowable her mother seems. The journey is heartfelt, witty and devastating. As Polley has proved throughout her cinematic career, which also includes such marvels as Away From Her (2006) and Take This Waltz (2011), she has composed another film about relationships that is both humbling and transcendent.
The candid cinéma vérité thing may seem cliché by now, but Polley’s casual set-up of her family preparing to tell the story of her mother is breathtaking in its brilliant brevity, as she ends with a match cut of her and her mother’s faces at around the same age. Her siblings, two brothers and a sister, and her father, fuss and complain of a sense of discomfort sitting in front of her camera. There’s a human sense of insecurity captured in candid commentaries as they worry about how they appear on the monitor. It’s stuff they probably never wanted or expected to appear in the film, but as such becomes more real than anything played self-consciously to the camera. Then there is a dissolve to black and white footage as the elder Polley settles in similarly for a vintage television appearance. Her own discomfort passed down to this younger generation. As the beautiful Bon Iver song “Skinny Love” quietly stirs along, Polley’s face melds with her mother during the song’s climax where singer Justin Vernon howls “And I told you to be balanced/And I told you to be kind.” It’s a ghostly, stirring moment that speaks to the film’s multi-layered brilliance, capturing both the doubt and intimacy between the generations.
As Diane was an actress, and the man who married her seemed obsessive with shooting home video, there exists a lot of vintage footage for Polley to incorporate into her film. Polley puts her father in a recording booth to read his own story about her mother. Like everyone she asks, he is told to start at the beginning, when he first met Diane, and keep going until her end. Everyone seems taken aback at such an all-encompassing question. But as daunting as it might seem, there also lies a sense of trepidation. How much knowledge is too much, and is there even truth to be had in any such knowledge?
Despite the mystery upon mystery revealed by the film’s meandering but always surprising narrative from the various interview subjects, what comes across from Polley’s research is far from empty. It actually illustrates the complexity of any one person’s life and the array of personas within all of us. We all behave differently at school versus home with family, so no one but sociopaths should be surprised. Just as children try on their personas in those two different worlds, the film offers an illuminating insight into both family and the mother’s career choice: acting. But, then there are the additional shifts in persona that exist on a more intimate level that may seem a bit more subtle. Some women interview by Polley volunteer: “She had secrets.”
The film is filled with such tidbits that keep stringing the viewer along and engaged. Polley effortlessly weaves the various perspectives while also offering behind-the-scenes glimpses that reinforce the film’s intimate quality. It does not come across as voyeuristic. Despite some tears from her siblings over this journey into loss, the film is relatable beyond this one family unit because this is not necessarily only about Polley’s family but family in general.
Meanwhile, it remains dramatic in its own way. At the very end it offers a note, a passing thought—maybe a fact— that turns the whole film on its head, staying true to the aloof and unknowable woman at the heart of Stories We Tell but maintaining its thesis of growing up among strangers. Just when you think you might know someone, another fact pops up that will redefine the perspective. Though the story is as intimate and personal as one can imagine, there’s also a melancholy thesis that the only person and the only world one can really know is one’s own experience.
Stories We Tell runs 108 minutes and is rated PG-13. It opens in Miami exclusively at the Tower Theater this Friday, June 14. The theater arranged for on-line screener for the purposes of this review. This documentary is also playing in other theaters nationwide; check out the film’s official blogspot site for theaters.