This is the story of a woman who couldn’t quite cope with the demands of a marriage that never brought her joy so much as stasis, who took a chance on a spell of fulfilled desire in another city, who returned from that city and out from under that spell with irrefutable evidence of her indiscretion, who opted to remain in that not very joyous marriage and to keep that irrefutable evidence and incorporate it into the story of her family. This is the story of a girl who was loved but whose mother died when the girl was far too young, who was told certain things over the years in jest and began to wonder when exactly jest becomes so insistent as to resemble truth. This is the story of a woman who was lovable but hard to love with, who had a loud laugh, who spoke a lot on the phone and worried over things, who really wanted to be an actor but mostly settled for being a casting director, a mother, and a problematic wife, who died far too young and became an enigma for everyone she left behind. This is the story of a young actress and political activist who became an extraordinary film director, who wanted to make a terribly thoughtful essay film about the vagaries of memory and how stories shape identity, who thought she could regard her subject from layers of distance and abstraction but slowly came to realize that her essay was a kind of memoir, that the thesis was blushingly personal, that however broadly she populated these Stories she was telling with colorful characters from her family and beyond, the film was always bound to become about her. Stories We Tell is many stories, but like any story it’s also about the storyteller. It cannot be otherwise.
Sarah Polley’s third feature as director, which has been called a documentary for lack of a better term, feels like the culmination of her preceding films, Away From Her and Take This Waltz, in that those films used fiction as a way of thinking about domesticity, intimacy and betrayal between fascinating women and loyal, sturdy men. It was sparked by Polley’s longtime suspicion that her father was not really her father, that is, her biological father, that her mother, who died 20 years ago, conceived Polley with some other man while working on a play in Montréal (the family lived in Toronto). Stories We Tell combines interviews with family and friends of the family—all of them providing different, conflicting speculations or supposed certainties about who was Father X—with sometimes startling home movie footage, an investigation, a formal reading by the father who raised Polley, a great orator with a rigorous emotional poker-face, and other, trickier elements that needn’t be described here. It’s rich, suspenseful, funny, smart, and heartbreaking. It keeps changing its mind about what it is as it goes along, yet it never looses the thread of its search. At one point Polley’s brother quotes Neruda: “Love is so short/Forgetting so long.” That about sums it up. And this film imaginatively sums up something about love and forgetting that Polley’s been getting at for a while. Which makes it that much more thrilling to consider where she goes from here.