Sarah Polley is known to my generation as the girl who played Ramona, starred in Avonlea, and played the girl in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. In the past few years, she has gained recognition not for her acting, but for her work behind the camera. She wrote and directed Away From Her and Take This Waltz. Her latest work is not one of fiction, but a personal story about her mother, her family, and where she came from. This is Stories We Tell.
Polley takes a different approach to telling a very personal and complicated story. She does not tell it herself, but through the stories of others who knew her and her story. The film is very much about her mother who died when Polley was young of cancer. It was not until later in life that she found out that her mother had a secret. Her father was not Michael Polley, but another man. She was the product of a long affair that started when her mother left home briefly to work on a play.
The film is obviously a love letter of sorts to Polley’s beautiful mother. Sarah does not hate her mother or fault her for any of the perceived mistakes she has made. Her parents had a complicated marriage, but they both obviously loved Sarah.
As already mentioned, the film and the story are told through family, friends, and potential fathers. Sarah herself does not do an interview herself, but does narrate segments and reads emails. It is through the stories that you see how perspectives change and events are altered. Everyone has their own version of what happened. Putting them all together forms the story of her mother and how Sarah came to be. Since we do not have Sarah’s mother to tell her own perspective, everyone’s stories could be slightly wrong. This is, of course, just what they remember.
There are beautiful recreations of events that Sarah filmed to correspond to parts of the story. Made to look like old home movies, I myself wondered if they were real or not. It is mentioned early on that her father got a movie camera and there are indeed real movies of her family in the mix. Sarah also cast some great lookalikes to play her family.
While the subject is obviously tough for Sarah Polley to come to terms with when this revelation first began, she has turned the experience into something she is able to tell on her own terms. The father-daughter relationship is strong and only gets stronger when it is determined that Michael Polley is not Sarah’s genetic father. In Stories We Tell, she experiments with storytelling and how it can change the reality of what actually happened. I did not expect to see a generic documentary from Sarah Polley, and Stories We Tell is anything but a run-of-the-mill doc.
I give Stories We Tell 3 “old movie cameras” out of 5.
by Sarah Ksiazek