Writer/director Sarah Polley’s new documentary, Stories We Tell, is a very personal and engrossing movie, but it sure as hell isn’t easy to digest. Pointing the cameras straight at her family members, she asks them to tell the story of her late mother, leading them to the point where they all have to discuss the fact that Polley is not her father’s biological daughter. It was a secret that even her mother kept well beyond the grave, and it was only through correspondence with her biological father that this was uncovered. Stories We Tell is a fascinating look at Polley’s family and the strength of the love that ties them together. Had this happened to someone else, I’m pretty sure we’d be seeing it play out on a show hosted by Jenny Jones or Jerry Springer. But Polley, in her hardnosed, truth-digging style, seeks to disclose this information as she sees fit, and with the full participation of everyone involved.
We hear about Sarah Polley often because she’s either done a new movie or she’s gotten herself in a publicity bind due to her activism. She’s not one to shy away from uncomfortable subjects, and she’s never been one to take the easy way. You’re talking about the actor who turned down the part of Penny Lane in Cameron Crowe’s 2000 movie Almost Famous – the part that made Kate Hudson a star – for a role in a low-budget Canadian independent film that not many people saw. So, when faced with the truth about her biological father, how do you think she decided to deal with it? Through the medium of film, where she could control how and when her story would be told. For years, she kept this secret guarded, even going so far as to beg certain members of the press who’d gotten wind of this revelation to not print stories about it. Stories We Tell is her coming-out party, of sorts; she gets her whole family to sit down and tell their stories to her unblinking camera. She even gets her father, Michael Polley, to narrate the documentary with his own written memoir – the reading of which Sarah directs while listening to him in a recording studio.
Much of the movie is delivered to us in grainy flashbacks, either shot on 8mm film stock or digital film manipulated to look that way; it seems that Polley wants to disarm us a bit with an old-timey feel, and she succeeds in doing so. Stories We Tell takes us on a linear narrative through Diane Polley’s life with husband Michael Polley, all the way through her death in 1990 and the eventual secrets that came to light concerning an affair she had while working in Montreal. Sarah Polley’s father, Michael, narrates with strength and a matter-of-factness, almost as if he’s had ample time to think about the events that have transpired that threw his world a little askew. The grace with which he carries himself provides a stability to contrast the self-involved interloper, Harry Gulkin, who doesn’t hesitate to voice his displeasure at the thought of other people being allowed to tell their stories.
Through it all is Sarah Polley and her commitment to telling this story. No matter if it hurts, no matter if it’s discomforting, they’re stories to be told. We may ask, “Why does this even matter? And why should I even bother watching this?” Because of how love, despite odd circumstances, still prevails. The Polley family and Harry Gulkin all share a love for and with Sarah; while it’s a little awkward watching siblings from different families tell their sides of the story (with very little inconsistencies), Polley doesn’t waver one bit, never cowering or sidestepping away from any kind of painful truth. It’s an effort that took a lot of guts, and every bit of that strength shows throughout the entirety of the movie. Acceptance and love are more powerful, moving feelings than hate or anger, and it’s to everyone’s credit that this didn’t wind up as talk-show fodder; the participants all speak from the heart with love in their hearts, and it’s a nice antidote to the incivility we see day in and day out. If this happened to someone else, you’d probably see insults, lawsuits, and no one taking responsibility for themselves. With Stories We Tell, you get quite the opposite – everyone’s so busy caring for each other, they don’t have time to be mad.