Early on in Stories We Tell, director Sarah Polley‘s third film (and first documentary), one of Polley’s sisters asks if anyone will really care about the film’s subject matter.
At the outset, it seems like a reasonable question. Plenty of other buzzed-about documentaries cover everything from the AIDS epidemic to violence against women in the military. Polley’s film is all about family. Her family. And virtually no one else. Yet in focusing her keen eye on her family the way she does on her fictional characters, Polley is able to create a film that is at once unique and universal in its emotions and themes. That Stories We Tell is about Polley’s late mother is but the jumping off point to this elegant, thoughtful, and very human documentary about families and the secrets they keep.
Polley’s first two films, 2007’s Away From Her and 2012’s Take This Waltz, were focused on childless couples enduring very different sorts of marital strife (Alzheimer’s and infidelity, respectively). By contrast, Stories We Tell is all about parents and children, even as issues of marriage remain present. Having barely known her mother, Diane, Polley decides to create a portrait of the woman based on stories from her siblings, her father (who also writes Sarah’s journey down as a short story), and a handful of family friends. Mixing straightforward interviews with a treasure trove of Super 8 home movies (some of which have a rather surprising background), Polley weaves a quietly engrossing look at her mother and her family life.
That may sound like limited material to work with, but Polley’s mix of footage is steadily engaging from the beginning. The film achieves a very careful balance of showing and telling that is rarely, if ever, thrown off. Even when her father’s readings of his short story border on overwritten, the editing keeps the pacing largely in check. The film covers surprisingly intimate ground, and Polley captures it with a smart, understated perspective. It allows the film to start as an open-ended documentary about life, only to gradually evolve into a docu-narrative that raises questions about true stories and who they belong to.
By stitching together so many different points of view, Stories We Tell feels much more complete. Had it been confined strictly to Polley’s point of view (or that of one subject), the material would have worn thin far too quickly. By carefully hopping between and among interviewees, Polley is able to turn the film into a puzzle. There are even a few twists spread across the film’s length. Some come from a narrative point of view, while others merely have to do with emotional developments that we previously knew nothing about. Altogether, it’s a fascinating way to put together a documentary, and it allows the film to speak to its bigger themes, and function as more than a project for just Polley and her family.
Yet for all of the interesting things that “Stories We Tell” has to say, Polley ends up overstating her case. Just as the film seems primed to wind down into a graceful, low-key conclusion, its engine revs back to life. From that point on, the film starts to overstay its welcome. There are any number of scenes in the final 25 minutes that feel like perfect moments to let the film end, yet Polley keeps it chugging along to the point of becoming longwinded. Rather than scramble to create an all-inclusive final act, Polley should have let it end sooner, and let the material speak for itself.