Sarah Polley is proving to be that most valuable of filmmakers: an unpredictable one.
The actress’ writing-directing debut, 2006’s Away From Her, was an uncommonly knowing portrayal of an aging couple’s struggle with Alzheimer’s. Her second film, Take This Waltz, was a stylistically bold look at infidelity, starring odd couple Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen. Now we have Stories We Tell, not only a documentary, but a uniquely envisioned one, in which Polley employs re-enactments of scenes from her family’s past, complete with actors and period costumes, and a voiceover narrative that’s written and read by her father.
That last bit was key for me. It isn’t until the end of the documentary that Stories We Tell registers as a moving love letter to Michael Polley, who has shaped his daughter’s youth, her artistic endeavors and eventually even this project. What makes this especially sweet – bittersweet, actually – is the fact that the impetus for the film was Polley’s discovery that Michael was not, in fact, her biological father, even though he raised her long after her mother’s death from cancer. Stories We Tell is Polley’s attempt to wrestle with that truth, via interviews with her family members, recreations of her parents’ past and Michael Polley’s own introspective words.
Polley is genuinely intrigued in the project as both a daughter and a filmmaker.
Polley and her “adoptive” father eventually arrive at a renewed appreciation of the lifelong bond that has existed between them, and this seems to genuinely take the younger Polley by surprise. Inquisitive and creative as she is, Polley appears more interested in the clinical, meta aspects of the project: How do we tell stories? How does the methodology (recreations, interviews) affect the telling? Is there a process that’s “truer” than the others? But the intellectual protection afforded by these questions can only keep the emotions at bay for so long. Eventually, the formalistic strictures of the documentary fall away and Polley – her entire family, really – is left facing the reality of the past as the cameras roll.
The existence of these two dynamics – meta formalism and emotional authenticity – elevates Stories We Tell in the personal documentary genre. There isn’t much narcissism here because Polley seems genuinely intrigued in the project as both a daughter and a filmmaker. It’s the movie she was literally born to make.