Stories We Tell

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Release: Friday, May 10, 2013 (limited)

[Theater]

What is it that Oscar Wilde said once — that the truth is rarely pure and never simple?

Sarah Polley’s new documentary, which features and exposes her family considerably, certainly shows that this is the case. Her visionary work captures fascinating interviews with all living members of the Polley family, as they explain in their own words (and biases) their Canadian family tree. It is beautifully crafted, a stylish and provocative blend of the straightforwardness of documentary footage with the quirkiness of vintage indie films, which makes for an easy and thoroughly engaging watch.

There is a lot that works very well for this quasi-documentary, but perhaps no element is stronger than Polley’s use of perspective; it drives the film’s many stories and allows the umbrella narrative to continue to unravel until the very last moments. It’s sort of like a mystery in this way. What’s more is that the director is not excluded from the plot.  She chooses to have cameras focus on her from time to time, catching her as she listens behind the scenes to her father read his parts from a script. Other times the camera is on another relative but Polley’s presence is still there behind the camera. We hear her asking questions sometimes, laughing during others.

What immerses us in the goings-on of this particular family — one that we would otherwise have no real connection with — is the effect of cameras rolling constantly. It gives the film a perpetual interconnectedness that really pulls us in from our seats. At first I was repelled by a lack of any recognizable characters and had the thought — well, more like a fear — that we would not be able to connect to any of the people featured here since they won’t be “acting” as such. Fortunately, that’s a fear that is short-lived.

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We dive headlong into the past with the help of ad hoc conversations juxtaposed with segments of re-enactments and authentic archived footage. At the core of the narrative are the Storytellers’ reflections on Diane Polley, who departed too early in their lives. From each we receive different parts of this woman’s life story and how they were affected in their own way. The “Storytellers” are those who were interviewed for the film and include: Michael, Mark, Joanna, and Marie Polley; Susy and John Buchan; Harry and Cathy Gulkin; Geoffrey Bowes and Marie Murphy, and more.

Not only is perspective critical to the structure of Stories We Tell, it is the reason Polley has chosen to make her film public. She’s the director of the film, but should she be the one telling the whole thing to us? What are the effects of having one story told by different people? What can we learn from different points of view, and what would be missing from each? These are all fascinating and worthwhile explorations of the nature of human relationships, how we live out our lives and the consequences of our past actions (or inactions, for that matter).

It may all seem a little high-brow and philosophical. . . but this is quite the digestible film. It is relatively short for a documentary (clocking in just ten minutes shy of two hours), but this is not the typical A&E Biography on television. This particularly likable bunch of Canadians have a rather complex, intriguing history, although I’d say it’s more or less impossible to find a family whose history lacks any sort of interest or peculiarity.

In the end what really sold me here was the true emotional depth of this film. There are a number of different levels that are touched on throughout, but Polley’s brave exploration of her own personal history really hits the deepest levels one can imagine when talking about the last moments everyone had with that wonderful Diane. One interviewee comes out and states the fact, and this resonated well with my audience — it’s going to sound sappy but these moments brought tears to my eyes. Never before have I really gotten this way by watching a film that doesn’t allow big budget drama to sell us these emotions. The tears come all on their own as a result of the closet being completely cleaned out with this family. Some scenes and questions are just all too real.

You cannot afford to miss out on seeing Stories We Tell. It is truly a fantastic work, and vital to anyone who has ever belonged to a family. I think that covers most of us. . . .

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Recommendation: An absolute must-see. Perhaps one of the greatest documentaries I’ve ever seen, Stories might even scratch my top ten favorite movies of all time. I know it’s a pretty big leap to take, but that’s how good this is. Do yourself a big favor and seek this out, I’m sure it will be harder to find than Man of Steel.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 108 mins.

6 thoughts on “Stories We Tell

  1. Pingback: The 2013 DigiBread Awards | digitalshortbread

  2. You have already my review, so you know … I completely agree.

    I have never made a Top Ten all time list. Nor do I think I’m ever going to (there are just too many movies in history that I haven’t seen), but if I ever were to make one, I don’t know. Maybe.

    I do know I’m moving it up the rankings on my Top Ten list for this year.

    Thanks for yet another great review, Tom.

    • hey thanks James, sorry it took me a minute to get back to ya here. As far as claiming as it might be on my list of all-time favorites, I think at the time I was very very excited about. I still am. I’m not sure if it’d be as good as to be on such a list, because I doubt that even I, as young and fresh as I am to this movie reviewing thing, would be able to construct it without leaving off a ton of other stuff I loved!

      All that said, Stories We Tell is exceptional. Never before has such an intricate portrait of a family’s story been on display. And not only was the detail just overwhelming, the concept behind this was extraordinarily brave and compelling. I say bravo to Sarah Polley.

    • Hey, thanks so much. It was really hard not to just gush about this film, it really is quite something. I’ve never seen anything like it.

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