Making honest art often requires being vulnerable. Stories We Tell sometimes feels too vulnerable. There’s a frankness and openness to the film that makes watching it almost feel intrusive and the people involved know it. Still, the film pushes forward bravely, surely with some trepidation and a framing device that gives both the audience and the people in the film a bit of distance.
Director Sarah Polley is making a film document of her own family. It mainly focuses on her mother, who passed away from cancer years ago. As she interviews family and friends, the story begins to shift and evolve into a different tale, one that takes a surprising turn and leads to a revelation that changed the lives of the family.
Sarah has more stake in the story that many of the players, but she remains behind the camera most of the film. Her major presence is a series of reaction shots where one can see the worry on her face. In the few scenes where she speaks, she voices concern over exposing her family and herself like this. Is she being too personal? Why does she want to expose her family and herself like this?
But Polley’s voice comes through in a different way. The way she presents the story becomes her voice in the tale. She edits everything together to tell the story in an egalitarian fashion, but also on a fashion where she decides what gets to be said by whom. More than that, she frames the film as an examination of how we tell stories, such as the letter her father writes her which narrates the film, the contradictory accounts of people who were there, and the documentary itself as a representation of what happened.
Polley concedes that this device is a way for her to make the movie about something else. She seems frightened of the idea of making a movie so directly about her. And maybe she should be. The tale of what happened is the kind of story that shakes up all sorts of assumptions she has about herself and the film seems to skirt past some of the implications as if Polley herself isn’t quite sure what to make of these events.
It’s funny to talk about Polley so much in relation to this film because the vast majority of the film is hearing from everyone else. Her siblings often have a playful attitude, but can be brutally honest about how distant their father seems to their mother. Her dad brings some wry humor to the film and occasionally goes on strange tangents and many friends seem uncomfortable talking as frankly about the subjects.
And there are also a lot of old footage of the family and Polley’s mother. Near the end of the film, it’s revealed that most of these footage scenes are actually reconstructions and not original footage of her mother. Once again, Polley is just as interested in how the story as told as what the story is about.
Stories We Tell as a straight story is powerful enough. It’s the kind of strange tale only real life could make. Instead of just making it her story, Sarah Polley uses it as a means to look at stories in general. This one in particular is so fascinating on that merit alone it’s worth hearing, but the grander exploration also makes it one that asks us consider not only what the story is, but how the story is told.
© 2014 James Blake Ewing