Starring: John Buchan, Joanna Polley, Mark Polley
Directed by: Sarah Polley (“Away From Her”)
Written by: Sarah Polley (“Away From Her”)
With an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for her incredibly moving drama “Away From Her” about a woman succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease, it was evident back in 2006 that filmmaker Sarah Polley was a decisive storyteller. In “Stories We Tell,” the first documentary of her short directorial career, Polley turns the camera on her own family to get to the heart of a narrative brimming with unanswered questions about her own life and explains how a family secret uncovered after more than 30 years changes her for the better.
Conducting interviews with a number of family members and friends, Polley already knows all the answers to the questions she is asking. The big revelation can’t come soon enough since the first half of the film builds on the most obvious outcome. Since the secret isn’t much of one to begin with, Polley finally revealing it isn’t really a groundbreaking event as much as it is an indication she should dig deeper into her family’s past and document the emotion behind the personal discovery. Polley does this to a point, but missteps on a few choices, which ultimately hurt the final product.
Through old Super 8 footage, Polley captures the most affecting parts of the film. Watching her mother, who died of cancer when Polley was only 11 years old, interact with her children and husband is a beautiful way to present her and a testament to the joyful life she led. While some of the talking-head interviews get a bit repetitious at times, Polley has a very affectionate way she handles her subjects. She isn’t so much an interviewer as someone who asks broad questions and then listens. If we learn anything from “Stories We Tell” it’s that Polley is a master at absorbing information and piecing it into a captivating tale about how people record their own histories, flaws and all.
Where Polley deviates from her objective, unfortunately, is in her use of actors to recreate some of the holes in her project. By using performers who look exactly like her mother and father at a young age and placing both of them into significant circumstances might make viewers feel more detached to the real-life players who are front and center. Polley, too, is a major character in her own story, but chooses to keep her personal opinion to herself instead of really reacting to statements from anyone involved. She even uses her father – a lifelong actor himself – to provide the narration of the film, which keeps Polley from taking a more integral role in the story. Maybe that is what she intended, but her voice was missed.
Nevertheless, Polley crafts an intimate biography that many viewers should identify with, especially if their family keeps things close to their vest. Before we know it, we’ve become invested in these characters. In another scenario, a film like “Stories We Tell” might be the equivalent of flipping through the pages of a family album. But with Polley exposing the Polleys (and doing it honorably), its rewards are higher than anything a few dusty Polaroids could offer.