Stories We Tell
Directed by Sarah Polley
Opens at the Charles Theatre May 31
Imagine assembling your parents, your siblings, aunts, uncles, your parents' friends and co-workers, sitting each down individually, and filming them-with a professional camera crew-as they recount the story of your parents' marriage, from their first encounter through the present. Every significant witness' discrete account of the relationship, voiced on tape, forming a collage of perceptions. The almost-certainly-ordinary story transcends the run-of-the-mill with this treatment: The narrative arc becomes clear, the crests and valleys of their journey together marked down and rounded out. It becomes the stuff of movies.
Now imagine investigating a long-kept family secret in that process and trying to peg down its roots. Canadian writer/director/actor Sarah Polley conducts this process in Stories We Tell. Her direction is fittingly meta. We see her four older siblings (all good-looking, pleasant people) get prepped for interviews on their couches, microphone wires hanging in the frame, lighting and sound checks happening around them. We hear her ask her subjects, including her father, Michael Polley, to tell "the whole story, from beginning to end, in your own words."
The story is largely that of Polley's mother, Diane, a lively, effusive Canadian actress, whose life was-for the sake of avoiding a spoiler-not always what it seemed. Polley hired actors to play her parents and siblings in their youth and filmed them with a Super 8 camera, mimicking home movies. She heavily incorporates actual home-video footage, as well, alongside the interviews, giving Stories a diverse texture.
In an early scene, Polley asks her sister how she feels about the idea of the documentary, encouraging her to be candid. "I guess I have this sort of instinctive reaction, like, Who fucking cares about our family?" she replies. The question is valid, but Polley has an interesting story and she executes its telling elegantly. She excels at structuring something that could well be unmanageable in another's hands. (Polley's adapted screenplay for Away from Her was nominated for an Oscar.)
Throughout Stories, Polley hits on universal truths. In one scene, her eldest brother, John, describes an imbalance of love in their mother's first marriage. "I don't know how deep her feelings were for him, but his feelings were deep. And it's awful to be in a relationship where one person loves the other much more than the other person loves them. I think in every relationship, one person loves the other person more. . . but hopefully it's close." He gestures, indicating two uneven levels with his hands. "And hopefully, it goes up and down a little bit, you know?" he says, hands shifting. "But it seems to me," his fingertips meeting in mid-air, "you never can both equally love each other the same amount." With this film, Polley may run the risk of people not caring her family, but she banks on people's curiosity about love and truth.