Writer/director and generally charming human being Sarah Polley isn’t very coy about the point she’s making with Stories We Tell. It’s all right there in the title; a documentary about how her family remembers key events is referred to as a collection of “stories,” an indication that the veracity of the past is a slippery bugger.
Sarah offers up her life as a lab rat to be dissected for the purpose of considering how we invent our own histories. Even the inherent “truthiness” of documentaries is covertly tackled. It is intelligent, thoughtful, introspective cinema, the kind that challenges the viewer. Now, if only it were actually enjoyable to watch…
Early on, Sarah’s sisters and brothers voice a concern that what’s to follow isn’t particularly revelatory or interesting to those who don’t belong to their bloodline. They’re right. Sarah suggests that this is a good thing, that it helps the audience relate because every family has some kind of story like this. The point isn’t the events, she states, the point is how we shape, perceive, share and remember the events. She’s right, of course. But there’s a reason we don’t all make documentaries showing our family matters to the world.
The question at hand is Sarah’s biological father. Is it Michael Polley, the man who raised her? Is it Harry Gulkin, the man with whom her mother allegedly had an affair? The answer comes quickly and earnestly and without any sense of drama. Again, drama isn’t Sarah’s point, but it sure would make things more palatable. Instead, Stories We Tell ditches the burger and fries and delivers nothing but vegetables, as Sarah painstakingly interrogates each and every sibling and significant acquaintance, in an attempt to prove that there is no one “truth” to any memory.
The alluring enigma that was Sarah’s mother, who died long ago, is perhaps the most fascinating character presented, which is remarkable considering she’s the only family member who isn’t actually included in this experiment. Michael, with his wry wit and kind eyes, is a close second, but even he seems to warn Sarah that her film is too serious. His calls to remember “the humor of the situation” go largely unheeded. As a result, the film plays like an interesting but very dry “This American Life” segment.
It’s hard not to recommend Stories We Tell, but it’s a recommendation in the vein of “drink 8 glasses of water a day” or “make sure to get enough fiber.” The film is “good for us” more than it is actually, in and of itself, “good.” Sarah Polley is clever and shrewd; the best filmmaking of her career is not in the rear view but a point on the horizon visible through an increasingly clear windshield. The lessons she learns and shares in Stories We Tell will serve her well as she becomes even more adept and skilled at her particular type of storytelling. If the underlying criticism of your current film is the promise of better ones to come, you’re probably doing something right.
Grade = C+