Film Reviews

Stories We Tell Sarah Polley

Rating - 8/10
Towards the end of Sarah Polley's wonderful new documentary, an inquiry into the identity of her biological father, she is seen arguing with one of the principals about the right to tell the story.  The problem is she comes from a family and milieu of writers, directors and actors who all need to express themselves and soak up whatever attention it generates.  Her mother, who died when Sarah was 11 years old, was an actress who was widely considered the life of the party.  Her father, the man she knew as her father her entire life, was a writer and actor who she recruits to pen and narrate the story for our, and most likely his, benefit.  But with all these artists vying one way or another for the spotlight, Polley, a talented actress and director herself, claims and ultimately justifies the right to have her vision of events, as filmed and edited into this documentary, take center stage.  More than anything, it's her lineage at stake and since she is the only child in the family whose birth seems shrouded in mystery, she makes a film about the search for her origins and what that might mean for all those involved.
I'm not going to get into any spoilers because the film unravels with the care and pace of a ripping good mystery, but suffice it to say that the players in this drama include Polley's immediate and extended family, as well as friends and lovers of her mother, who is the focal point of this story.  She recreates her family history through a series of interviews with everyone she could find who might have something important to add, as well as real and re-enacted Super 8 films using actors to portray the family members we see commenting on the action.  In the wrong hands, this meta-meta-ness of a family of actors, played by actors, filmed by an actor, seen filming the action, and on on, could have really been an occasion for the most precious kind of navel-gazing and pretentiousness.  But Polley, a Canadian unpolluted by Hollywood's sometimes nauseating insularity, keeps the focus on the heart rather than the head, and the technique only serves to better tell the story.  True, there is some thoughtful, on the nose, commentary about the whole process which might not have been necessary, but ultimately is appropriate since most of the concerned parties are storytellers and are aware enough of what Polley is doing and what it means.  Ultimately, the Super 8 reproductions serve as a diversion from what would otherwise be a panoply of talking heads.  Documentary filmmakers who use this technique certainly owe a debt to Errol Morris and his groundbreaking The Thin Blue Line, and while there's certainly much to muse on considering the ethics and the impact of this approach in a search for truth, but before we get too far up our own asses let's just acknowledge that it provides something interesting to look at while an interviewee prattles on.   It is a movie after all, not an educational filmstrip, and finally has to be judged on cinematic terms.  It's why JFK can be a great movie while containing nary a shred of verifiable truth.  Should documentaries be judged by different standards?  Maybe, and you can try, but Stories We Tell demonstrates that a documentary can be successful showing you what people are saying rather than what is provably true.  This is part of Polley's point, because by the end you feel that since she's relying on people's memories, she's learned a little and raised a whole new set of questions.  You can only get so far with memory, as she shows through numerous contradictions between recollections of the same events.  She even punctuates the film with a punchline that makes you scratch your head and question much of what you've heard for the past hour and a half.  
After being talked about, in good ways and bad, for the length of an entire feature, Polley's mother is shown in a series of lengthy slow motion shots.  We've seen her several times already, but now we are reminded that Sarah lost her mother at a very young age, and whatever mystery might surround her paternity, she'd really want nothing more than to have her back.  So this film functions as a kind of temporary resurrection, or attempt to use the communal mind of friends and family to reinforce her dimming memories.  As solid as the movie is as a thoughtful piece of documentary film making, this makes it kind of beautiful as well.