Actress-turned-director Sarah Polley turns her attention away from death and adultery as surveyed through her previous two narrative features Away From Her and Take This Waltz and onto her family history with unconventional documentary Stories We Tell.
Using her talent as both a filmmaker and as a storyteller to tell her family’s story may seem self-indulgent and unnecessary to be aired in public, yet the warmth in which Polley infuses into the film ensures it carries with it a more deeper, universal value.
Through frank talking-head interviews, old Super 8 footage and reconstructions, Polley allows various family members, friends and those involved in her mother’s life to paint a colourful, complete picture of such a frolicsome person. Sadly taken from her when Polley was only eleven, Stories We Tell examines how Diane’s individual choices had such a profound – and, in some cases, life-changing – lasting effect on those around her.
It’s arguably Polley who’s most effected by her mother’s outlandish lifestyle (to reveal more would be to ruin the many rich and rewarding layers that unfold over the course of the 108 minute running time), yet the film is very much captured through her father’s point of view. Acting as narrator, Michael recounts his wife’s life, even the tricky revelations, in loving and honest candour, as if absolving Diane of the pain she caused in her lifetime and learning to cope with the often reckless decisions she made.
This is a documentary that’s not only imbued with such love, but also entirely free of blame and bitterness. By keeping it a wholly personal affair, yet exploring themes and ideas that can be acknowledged by the audience, Polley has made a rare documentary that acts and feels exactly like a piece of narrative cinema. Irig Ng’s cinematography and Jonathan Goldsmith’s score, too, help in actualising the films wistful mood.
There’s no doubt come the conclusion that Stories We Tell was a cleansing process for Polley and her nearest and dearest; a chance for them to heal old wounds and make amends. But the films greatest achievement is in how deeply mesmerising one woman’s story can be, regardless of whether she’s famous or not. Everyone has a story to tell, and Polley makes it clear that even those that seem so clean-cut on the surface, have secrets of their own hidden underneath.