Stories We Tell begins as a fairly straightforward documentary about a mother who died young and the family that has a lot of stories to tell about her, but it becomes much more than garden-variety biography. The film was made by her daughter, who happens to be accomplished actress and director Sarah Polley (Take this Waltz, Away from Her), and the film’s narration is done by the father/husband who was once an actor and was inspired to write the story of the documentary. Polley’s brothers and sister and an assortment of friends add their spin on the stories of Diane Polley who lived large, but was ultimately a mystery to even those closest too her.
This is not your usual talking heads biographical documentary. Sarah Polley isn’t the invisible director off camera, but very much an integral part of the film, joking with her interviewees, inserting herself into the narrative when necessary, and as the story unfolds she becomes a more and more important part of her mother’s story, though not because of ego. Besides breaking that 4th wall rule, Polley also uses actors to bring her mother and others to life, mixing newly shot scenes with older Super-8 footage and photographs, which works quite well to bring the story to life. But then the question is whose truth is being told? And I think that is the point of the film, that there are stories we tell and stores behind those stories.
The film really turns on a period in her mom’s life when she spent a couple of months away from her family before Sarah was born, acting in a play in Montreal, and what happened there. Family mythology surrounds that period, and as Sarah gets closer to the truth, her own story changes. What is well done in the film is that this one incident does not dominate the film. What the film is about are the ways that each of the storytellers frames the same woman’s life. The most insightful and sympathetic of them all is her Dad, who met her mother when he was an actor, but felt he did not live up to her expectations as a husband. And one of the best elements of the film is the story he has written of her life that he reads aloud as narration, with Sarah cutting in from time to time asking him to reread what she sees as a significant passage.
Watching this film gave me a different view of Sarah Polley’s other recent film, Take this Waltz. It didn’t make me like it a lot more, but it did explain why as a writer/director she is so interested in women who are looking outside their marriages for love and excitement. Her own mother’s adventures in Montreal must have informed that script as well as her previous script Away from Her. Diane Polley was undoubtedly a charismatic and complicated woman who was searching for more, and I’m not sure she would be happy about all her secrets being told, but I think she would be proud that her daughter was able to tell them in this entertaining and engaging film.