Film review: Stories We Tell (12A)

NEAR the start of Sarah Polley’s gripping new documentary, she does her best to put us off. “Who cares about our stupid family?” asks one of her sisters on camera. The answer is that we all do, because the family secrets they reveal are both particular and universal.

Sarah Polley, director of Stories We Tell. Picture: Complimentary
Sarah Polley, director of Stories We Tell. Picture: Complimentary
Sarah Polley, director of Stories We Tell. Picture: Complimentary

It’s taken Polley five years to make this story of her family, centring on her vivacious mother Diane, who was also an actress. In archive footage, Diane Polley smiles frequently and looks like a cross between Julie Christie and Doris Day, with a wide generous smile.

The verdict of those who knew Diane Polley is that she was an extrovert who loved excitement and attention, while her husband Michael was quieter, more remote and solitary. Diane first saw him on stage, and Michael suggests that she fell for the character he played, rather than the man he was. They were happy for a while, but his wife felt isolated by an undemonstrative relationship. However, an acting stint away from home in Montreal breathed new life into their partnership. They had a daughter, and when the child was 11, Diane died of cancer.

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Possibly because Sarah Polley’s extended family all seem to be somehow involved in the creative arts, they know how to turn a phrase and tell a good yarn. The story is illustrated by old home movie clips, where it’s jolting to see how frequently everyone smoked, and talking heads commentary where Sarah Polley can be heard, and sometimes seen, cajoling details from her sparky, articulate siblings, extended family and friends.

All sorts of liberties are taken with the conventions of archive; you might feel offended or deceived by one ruse, but I rather enjoyed them. Several times Polley stops her father in his recording studio and makes him retake the narrative of his own life to give it different emphasis. “Really?” he says after another interruption. “I was being so real!”

The point, gently made as we sift through testimonies, is that everyone has their own recollection of reality. One person describes Diane Polley as incapable of deception, but someone else thought she was “full of secrets”; and revelations about the Polley family keep coming right into the credits.

This is Polley’s third film, and once you’ve seen Stories We Tell, it feels as if she’s always been minded to tell this family’s tale. After all, Away From Her deals with memory and attachment, while Take This Waltz shows a woman torn between a comfortable domestic relationship and the possibility of passion outside it. But there’s far more to Stories We Tell than an investigation of marital boredom. It’s about how we remember our past, what’s important in marriage and love, the messiness of lives, and that we can choose to view acts by those we love with anger or empathy. In that respect, Michael Polley may amaze you with his emotional honesty and generosity, and it adds up to a brilliant, poignant, life-affirming movie, which gains in complexity just when you think you might have its number.

Honestly, it’s one of the best things you’ll see this year.

Belmont, Aberdeen, today and on selected release from Friday, including Glasgow Film Theatre and Dundee Contemporary Arts from 5 July, and Filmhouse, Edinburgh, from 12 July