The Tuesday Zone: ‘Stories We Tell’

Last week, I reviewed The Spectacular Now, the most recent work from the screenwriters of (500) Days of Summer, which is the first movie I wrote about for Rooster Illusion. Fittingly, this review is of the most recent movie by the director of the second film I ever wrote about for Rooster Illusion: Take This Waltz. I refer to Sarah Polley, an actress and director who, as far as I can glean from two movies, has a penchant for complex, human portraits of those who might be considered everyday people. She’s thoughtful, talented, and unique; in fact, she’s one of the most intriguing directors working today. Fittingly, her new film goes in an entirely new direction from Take This Waltz, but creates a similarly stunning product.

Stories We Tell (2013)


National Film Board of Canada

Plot: Sarah Polley uses a documentary approach, interviewing several people to construct a narrative about her mother, and more importantly the affair that led to her birth. She also attempts to consider her role in making the movie, in particular how the telling of stories produces vagueness, uncertainty, and truths.

Stories We Tell is a documentary, but Polley’s talent and disposition as a fiction filmmaker show in how she builds the narrative. She cannot separate her creative impulses from the building of history, as evidenced by the title: she wants not only to reveal the circumstances regarding her birth and the effects, but also what any attempt at revelation will entail by virtue of pasting together multiple perspectives. The result is a layered story that attempts to portray the nature of subjectivity in memory while also respecting each person’s tale.

That’s ambitious, and perhaps overwrought, but Polley knows how to blend complex thematic questions with engaging stories. Her mother, Diane, is a fascinating person; I really cared about not only her personality, but the events that pushed her to be impregnated out of wedlock and be dishonest about it. I sympathized with her despite her behavior, which I admit would cause me think negatively of a person—lying about affairs would put me off of most people. Polley accomplishes this in much the same way that she allowed us to understand an adulterer in Take This Waltz: by portraying a person in full, as a human being—which always entails personal flaws—and the viewer’s interest follows naturally. From there, we explore the affair and its implications, which brings us to Polley’s birth and childhood. This includes with and without her mother, who died when Polley was only eleven (on her eleventh birthday, to be exact).

The story is without a doubt interesting, in no small part because all of the people Polley interviews—her siblings, biological father, nonbiological father (who raised her), and family friends—are open, honest, unabashedly emotional, and pretty damn good at telling stories themselves. The most insightful comment comes from her father, who argues that the editing process will obscure any objectivity in telling the story as reported by the numerous interviewees. And he’s right. But Polley openly acknowledges that, allowing for subtext to permeate the process of making the documentary.

It's also pretty explicit.

National Film Board of Canada
Sometimes it’s present at more than the subtextual level, admittedly.

Polley jumps between perspectives, not only in terms of who is talking, but also in terms of who is listening. For example, she has her father read her entire memoir; when his story is at the forefront, she shoots herself in the studio listening to her father read into the microphone. She is the audience, listening to her father’s story despite the fact that it’s “about” her. She shoots Super 8 footage with actors to reconstruct scenes, remaining faithful to the storytellers’ versions of events, which often conflict with each other.

The film unfolds and Polley attempts both to control the narrative and let it develop. It’s her story, yes, but it’s also everyone else’s. She listens, but also asks her father to read back lines when they don’t sound quite right to her; still, she lets us now what she’s doing with acute self-awareness. No one is more right or wrong than anyone else, and while she may implement bias inherently by selecting what to show and what not to, that bias more so affects the theme of storytelling’s inherent subjectivity than it does blur the reality of what happened with her mother.

Subjective or not, this man makes his stories very real.

National Film Board of Canada
Subjective or not, this man makes his stories (and therefore the image of Diane) very real.

Documentaries are strange creatures, especially in recent years when objectivity as a concept induces more skepticism than emails from Nigerian princes. Polley confronts these concerns head on, but does not let them dominate the movie; rather, her confrontation illuminates the obscured nature of what happened with her mother, and moreover any attempt to remember events from the past. Meta-commentary and abstractions can dilute a film’s story and drown a work in pretension, but Polley is far too clever for that. She knows what makes her movie work, and she also knows how to create something relatable and challenging. Stories We Tell is an impressive addition to her filmography, and I cannot wait to see what she does next.

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