With Stories We Tell, actress-turned-director Sarah Polley has proven herself a consummate filmmaker, transforming an incredible personal story into a playful and profound investigation into the nature of storytelling itself. The central mystery of her documentary—that the man she grew up believing to be her dad is not her biological father—is public knowledge and revealed in the film’s trailer. Yet Polley conceals and reveals information—starting with her relationships to her interview subjects—in such a way as to constantly surprise, even shock, her audience. The result is a film that entertains and delights viewers while elevating her investigation to art.
Polley was just 11 when her mother Diane died from cancer, and in the years that followed, a period during which she grew close to her dad, her family started to joke how little she looked like him, that maybe he wasn’t really her father, that her actress mom had had an affair while appearing in a play for a few months in Montreal during the time that Polley was conceived, and that her real father was one of the actors her mother performed with. It turns out their wild speculations weren’t far off, and Polley here revisits that process of discovery, interviewing her dad, her siblings and her mother’s friends to demonstrate how the story got started and how it turned out.
Notably, Polley herself is not among the storytellers listed in the end credits. She’s all over the film, in Super 8 home movies and behind-the-scenes footage as her camera crew sets up for interviews, her disembodied voice piping up with follow-up questions, reading her emails to key players in the story, watching uncomfortably as her dad reads the voiceover in a sound studio. Despite others who claim the story is only theirs and Diane’s to tell, it’s clearly Polley’s, yet her decision to let others tell the story for her, to convey the tale as objectively as possible, removes an emotional variable that would have clouded her central thesis and limited the film’s scope. What might have become a maudlin memoir instead is a study of form.
For Stories We Tell reveals late in the film that it’s been toying with us all along—not maliciously, but teasing to make a point. Just as Polley presents conflicting points of view without comment, letting the fact that her interviewees disagree speak for itself, she reveals that what we’ve been watching—indeed, our very expectations of filmmaking—are yet another, perhaps unreliable, layer of story. It’s hard to explain without spoiling the sense of discovery that comes with watching it all unfold, but Polley’s is a remarkable achievement, as revelatory about ourselves as the subject at hand.
Director: Sarah Polley
Writer: Sarah Polley
Starring: Michael Polley, Harry Gulkin, Susy Buchan, John Buchan, Mark Polley, Joanna Polley
Release date: May 10, 2013