People like to tell stories about themselves; about the day their parents met, how they were introduced to a hobby, or how an event changed their lives. We collect these Cinderella stories because we’re proud of them, and because they make great conversation. Some even make great movies. But how often do you hear people talk about their dirty laundry? Very rarely. That’s one of the remarkable things about the documentary Stories We Tell, the third film from writer-director Sarah Polley (Away from Her, Take this Waltz). It’s a film in which Polley dives head-first into the darkest secret of her family and bravely reveals it to the world.
Far from a cheap, self-indulgent expose, Polley’s film is a revealing, always fascinating portrait of family, relationships and memories. It focuses on how we’re all unreliable narrators – even of our own history, and reveals how shifts even in the tiniest of details end up shaping our lives. What begins as a study about Polley’s quirky mother Diane, soon evolves into an examination of Diane’s marriage with her husband Michael, and how their relationship, or lack of it, led to events that would change all of their lives forever, for better or for worse.
If my description of the plot sounds vague, it is deliberate. One of the pleasures of this film is its numerous twists. Giving away even an iota of the plot would be to risk some of its allure. Polley creates this allure by utilizing a number of nifty narrative techniques. She shoots various members of her family (from her brothers and sisters to her extended family) telling different versions of the same set of events. She frames the film with a touching voice-over narration from her father. She also impressively blends real and reenacted footage to give the audience a sense of whom and what these people were like. These techniques lend the film the air of a mystery, one with a compelling story, endearing well-rounded characters and a satisfying resolution. And by the end of it, you’ll get all of them, and then some.