Sarah Polley is an amazing actress, but now she is proving to be an amazing filmmaker as well. Her third film, Stories We Tell, marks the first documentary she has ever made, but it also deals with the same themes Away From Her and Take This Waltz dealt with as well: the troubles faced in long standing relationships as well as issues with memories and truth. It also proves to be a genre-twisting film as Sarah uses different methods to get at the truth surrounding a very important person in her life, her mother Diane.
We learn that Diane died when Sarah was only 11 years old, and Stories We Tell represents Sarah’s quest to find out more about the person she was. In addition to being the director, Sarah also acts as a detective as she interviews various members of her family as well as friends of her mom who share their vivid recollections of her. Diane was an actress who loved acting in the theater, and we get to see her in flashbacks that were shot in Super-8 which give Stories We Tell an unmistakably nostalgic feel.
What’s endlessly fascinating about this documentary is how everyone sees Diane in a slightly different light. The story of her life is the same, but the details differ from person to person to where you wonder who’s really telling the truth. But here it doesn’t matter who’s more truthful because no one remembers any story in the same exact way. What matters is that the stories told here are emotionally true, and Sarah keeps us enthralled throughout as she digs deeper into her mother’s history.
Talking about Stories We Tell from there is tricky because there are revelations made by Sarah that are not worth spoiling in this review. Just when you think that she has discovered all she can about her mother, another layer is revealed which shows Diane to be a much more complex person than we ever could have imagined. But an even bigger revelation is in store for Sarah, who comes to realize something about herself that could turn her life completely upside down.
Watching this documentary, you can tell that Sarah really challenged herself with the genre. She keeps finding different ways to show us the story of her mother, and she is eager to experiment with various forms of filmmaking throughout. Not once does she try to manipulate the audiences’ emotions and make you feel pity for her or anyone else who appears in the movie. In fact, you come out of Stories We Tell with a great respect for the Polley family overall because, despite whatever troubles they have been through, they remain a strong, loving unit when they could have simply descended into a world of hate and bitterness for no good reason.
Sarah also treats every single one of her interview subjects with respect and lets them speak their minds even if she is not always comfortable with what is being said. One participant worth singling out here is Harry Gulkin, who had a strong friendship with Diane and who at one point tells Sarah that the story of what happened between him and Diane is really only his to tell. He is not comfortable with Sarah making this documentary, and it’s to Sarah’s credit that she doesn’t leave what Harry says out of it. The fact that she got Harry to agree to do an interview for Stories We Tell despite his objections says a lot about the respect she commands not just as an actress or as a filmmaker, but as a person. It also gives her another avenue to explore as the documentary goes on.
You may come out of Stories We Tell feeling a little unsure of whether you can believe everything that you have heard and seen, but you can’t say that you were the least bit bored while watching it. Sarah hasn’t just made a memorable portrait of her late mother, but she has also shown us the power of storytelling as well. While the stories don’t always remain the same, hearing them being told is endlessly fascinating.
With this being her third movie as a director, Sarah Polley has proven to be an adventurous filmmaker who is out to try new things even if they truly frighten her. Stories We Tell is obviously a highly personal film for her, but she finds a way to tell it that respects both the participants interviewed in it as well as the audience that will watch it. What is told could have simply ended up in another episode of Jerry Springer, but the subject matter here is treated with a lot of warmth, understanding and humility, and it never becomes an exercise in cynicism. This is easily one of the best movies of 2013.
Stories We Tell starts out as a simple investigation into the life of a mother that director Sarah Polley barely knew and slowly turns into a documentary that is as good as any movie you will see this year.