By definition, Stories We Tell is likely to be the most literally personal project of Sarah Polley’s career. An actress since she was just a small child (picture her as the youngster in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen for context), her first documentary credit is just her third turn as a director, and the very first instance I know of where her own past & familial structure were the subject of scrutiny. This kind of navel-gazing has both inherent charms and flaws. The intimacy of Stories We Tell’s revelations about Sarah Polley’s past & family structure is striking. It’s highly unusual for a public figure to expose so much of themselves & their immediate loved ones in this honest of a way and that vulnerability alone makes Stories We Tell a memorable experience. On the other hand, the story at the heart of the documentary isn’t quite as fulfilling & engaging to outsiders as it is to the people who lived it and the film has a tendency to over-explain its own intent instead of simply allowing the story to unfold.
Without revealing too much about the story Polley tells here, I’ll just say that it’s focused on a nagging question about her paternity. Interviewing her siblings, her parents, and friends of the family, Polley looks back to her birth & childhood and retraces the steps of her deceased mother to hopefully answer lingering questions about who fathered her. Because the story of her childhood is told through many voices, it has a fractured, almost Cubist structure that calls into question the difference between truth & observation. Even though Polley is mostly interviewing her own family, she is relentless in her pursuit of “the truth”, referring to her own tactics as an “interrogation process.” It’s her unforgiving honesty & tendency to push her loved ones to their limits that make the documentary an unusual & interesting experience.
As interesting as Stories We Tell is in concept & execution, the story does wear itself a little thin in the final half hour, especially once the truth about Polley’s paternity is revealed. After the story has effectively been told from beginning to end, the documentary makes the mistake of over-explaining itself. Polley directly tells the audience that her film’s not only about that story in particular, but about the nature of memory & storytelling in general. Polley’s not giving herself enough credit there. The film had already spoken for itself, especially in its fractured interview structure & super-8 recreations of significant memories (like a critical phone call & café meeting that cracked the story wide open). It would’ve been a much better movie if it had ended once the story was over, instead of continuing to provide context when it wasn’t needed in a conclusive half hour that felt more like a DVD extra than a proper part of the documentary. As is, it’s a fairly solid documentary that shows a lot of promise of where Polley’s directorial career might go in the future, but isn’t exactly essential or even necessary either. I believe she’s got even better, more important work in her that will play much more confidently once she allows it to speak for itself.