One of the trickiest aspects of growing up is seeing your parents not as parents but as people, flawed people whose mistakes may have greatly impacted you and your family in ways you'd never imagined. It's jarring, realizing that your parents' personal flaws can not only transform how you see them, but how you view yourself. And this moment is the crux of actress turned writer-director Sarah Polley's latest film, Stories We Tell. In it she bravely and boldly reveals the skeletons in her family's closets as a means to come to terms with them. It's a film so deeply personal, it almost feels indecent to discuss it.
Sarah's most celebrated works as a writer-director to date, Away from Her and Take This Waltz, are fictions about marriages facing crisis that could dissolve them. Watching her unfold the story of her own parents' marriage, it's impossible not to draw comparisons. Through interviews with her siblings, father, and close friends of her late mother, Sarah unravels the story of her parents' tumultuous relationship and how it led to her creation in a way that's surprising and bittersweet. While other filmmakers have mined their own lives for documentaries, the alarming candor of the Polley clan immediately sets Stories We Tell apart from the pack. Perhaps it's because Sarah has a disarming interview style, but more likely it's because even with the camera crews between them—shots of which are graciously included within the doc—much of the film's most astounding moments are family connecting over loss and love.
What makes the film so richly engaging is how Sarah chose to unfold it. Her father, Michael Polley, once wrote her a revelatory letter about his relationship with her mother. And aside from this introductory device, of the grown Sarah ushering Michael into a recording booth to play the film's narrator with his own missive as copy and similarly setting up her siblings for interviews, Stories We Tell unfolds the information not as it happened, but as Sarah learned it. Here is the story of how Michael and Diane Polley, two talented actors, met, fell in love, and married. Then how their marriage lost its luster, but found a second wind following Diane's landing a role in a big city stage production that took her away from their routine for a few months. Here comes bouncing baby Sarah, who funny enough never resembled Michael much at all. Then—just as abruptly as it felt to the 11-year-old Sarah—here comes her mother's death from cancer. And soon thereafter rumors that Michael is not her father after all.
While this deeply personal documentary involves some revelations that could play into high drama, that's not the film's most fascinating element. Instead, it's how every person Sarah interviews interprets the actions of her long-gone mother. Diane can't speak for herself, so her loved ones speak for her, shaping a sometimes conflicting portrait that pulls attention to how slippery memory is, subject to perspective and emotion. This is what Sarah claims interested her in the project, though Michael insists it may be her way of dealing with the secrets she's unearthed, while another figure deeply invested in this narrative demands that only two people can really say what happened here and one is no longer around to share it. So, whose opinion matters?
In the end, Sarah suggests everyone's because how each person digests these stories told impacts them. While Sarah never sits down for an interview of her own, the film is her version of this story, where she presumably highlights the parts that make sense to her and cut things that seemed irrelevant or unlikely. She not only chose her interview subjects and selected what parts of their answers to include but also cast a crew of actors and directed them in playing her growing family for super 8 shot re-enactments that give the film a warmth inherent in watching beloved home movies. This is the story as Sarah chose to tell it. And while in the end it may work too hard to justify its own existence, it is glorious in its expression of difficult personal truths for public consumption.