Stories We Tell manages to be both ambitious and extremely personal as Sarah Polley attempts to weave the story of her late mother using interviews with family and friends and subtle reconstructions. The goal is to get at the underlying truth of what her mother was, almost to resurrect her cinematically. Along the way, the film focuses on the revelation that Sarah Polley’s mother may have had an affair and Sarah may have been raised by the man who isn’t her biological father. You really can’t get any more personal than that.
On the personal end, the film is a complete triumph. Sarah, her father, and her mother were actors and seemingly everyone around them is very comfortable in front of the camera. That may be a credit to Sarah as interviewer and editor, but the end effect is that the story becomes very intimate and emotional as Sarah knows just what questions to ask and what buttons to push. And some of the interviewees know just what questions to ask Sarah and which of her buttons to push, which makes for some entertaining viewing. There are more unvarnished raw emotions present than in a dozen fictional films and it’s very effective on that level.
The search for truth is a more difficult task to pull off. Not least because the central figure of the story isn’t there to give her side of it. So we get scattered stories to try to paint a complete picture. Sarah ultimately refers to the tale as stories rather than truth, which helps make the film very evenhanded, there are no villains in the tale, and less narcissistic than it could have been. The word Rashomon is never used, but it could have been. That said, this is a reconstruction and Sarah Polley ultimately holds the power to shape the narrative as she sees fit in the editing bay. Sarah acknowledges this and reveals some behind the curtain details on how she’s manipulated the film which is honest, but that ambiguity is not completely satisfying as an answer for what is true or not.
If Sarah doesn’t quite pull off a statement on the nature of truth, she does manage to pull off an impressive feat of storytelling. Sarah uses a number of film stocks and recreations, to filter the story so that we’re aware that the tale is being recreated for us. It blends fact and fiction nicely, well aware that it’s engaged in storytelling. It’s also interested in making Sarah’s mother live again, at least in our imaginations and sometimes literally via the magic of motion pictures. Sarah’s mother died while she was young, so it’s quite possible that this is Sarah recreating her mother as best she can.
It’s a darn effective and affecting movie and very watchable. Maybe it pats itself on the back a little bit at the end, but in form and content it’s a real credit to Sarah Polley the film maker.