Stories We Tell
Directed by Sarah Polley
Filmmaker Sarah Polley interviews members of her family as they look back on decades-old events.
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★★★★★ review by Matt Singer on Letterboxd
This movie was even more beautifully sad than watching a guy on the subway ride home eat an entire Papa John's pizza by himself.
And let me tell you my friends, that was a mighty sad sight (he was using the dipping sauce -- or at least that's how I remember it).
★★★★ review by Adam Cook on Letterboxd
Stories We Tell is a moving and incredibly candid family portrait as filmmaker, Sarah Polley, explores the mysteries surrounding her mother. Beginning as a rather traditional biography of her late mother it gradually transforms into a far richer documentary that touches on identity, memory, the fallibility of truth and the power of storytelling to create a deeply personal yet universal work.
As with all the best stories it is better to experience Stories We Tell with as little prior knowledge as possible. Yet whilst the film’s narrative takes a series of surprising diversions and features several revelations there is something refreshingly ordinary about this personal discovery. One of the contributors even questions why other people would be interested in their family story but it is in this relative normality that Polley teases more compelling themes. In fact the personal revelation that drives the narrative forward is treated with a refreshing matter-of-factness rather than a devastating centrepiece used to shock the audience.
Stories We Tell success lies in its even-handed approach and the way it explores the unreliable nature of memory and the elusiveness of truth - after all truths such as these are always passed through a filter of personal subjectivity and failing recollections. With the one person able to provide the most definitive account - Sarah Polley’s mother - absent from the film it is up to the filmmaker and family to reconstruct the past. Naturally, it is impossible to truly do so and the film freely admits how elusive this goal is.
Despite the film touching upon such weighty themes as identity (after all it is a film as much about Sarah as it is her mother), memory and the collaborative embellishments of storytelling it always remains light and engaging throughout. Polley constantly pulls back the curtain to reveal the filmmaking process surrounding the candid interviews. Whilst it could be accused of simple gimmickry it seems natural and fitting to see how a story about stories would be constructed, particularly when its director is so intrinsically linked to the material.
It is testament to Polley’s sensitivity and honesty that such a personal subject matter neither feels exploitative or self-indulgent. She is intimately connected to the stories that weave in and out of the documentary yet remains impartial enough to allow each party, from family to close friends, to provide their own interpretations of the events. Whilst the film could have so easily ended up as cheap therapy for its filmmaker she manages to find universal connections that help make the story mean something to those outside of this intimate circle of people.
Stories We Tell is a thoughtful, bittersweet and intimate documentary that transcends its limited focus.
★★★★½ review by Filmspotting on Letterboxd
The only way this movie could have been more made for me is if the opening credits included a dedication that read: "This movie was made for Adam Kempenaar."
Full discussion available here.
A few notes that didn't make it into the conversation:
- A perfectly Polley-esque touch that I failed to mention about my autobiographical short film... My wife, then girlfriend, played the younger version of my mom.
- A key to the success of this film, I believe, is Polley's obvious fairness, generosity of spirit and lack of guile. Everything we see is a capital-C construct with her as the puppet master, but there's no overriding sense of calculation that might come through with other directors. It's all about discovery.
- My lone quibble is with the re-enactments of scenes that are not from the 'past'... the one-to-one match-ups of, for example, Sarah's real father recounting their first meeting and us seeing a dramatized version of that on screen. Unlike the other re-creations, there's no conflict, no distance, no question of 'is this real/fake'. We know it's fake. We know she didn't have cameras running. The syncing, if you will, strikes me as distracting and unnecessary in those moments.
★★★★ review by davidehrlich on Letterboxd
"i swatted my fly!"
yes. unremarkable by nature, remarkable by design. Kiarostami 101, but indelibly articulates schism of being / remembering.
works in spite of itself, at times. but then again, don't we all?
also, it may not really count, but Polley includes what i'd like to consider to be the greatest credits stinger of all time.
★★★★½ review by Jonathan White on Letterboxd
In Stories We Tell, director Sarah Polley attempts what I think is the impossible. She attempts to create a documentary of her family story. By all accounts this shouldn’t work, as the decisions that the documentarian makes when crafting the narrative cannot possibly be objective. In this age of Moore type ‘documentaries’, where the opinions and agendas of the documentarian overshadow any semblance of balance and objectivity, Polly could have easily strayed into grey zone of ‘truth’. But she didn’t. At all. Instead, she made the question of how to find the truth when presented with different recounts of the same stories one of the central themes.
The declaration of the search for how to find the truth in the stories we tell puts it on the right footing. However, I don’t think that declaration alone is enough. Something more is needed for the audience to suspend their prejudice. They need to be convinced that the documentarian is being honest with them. Polley shines here in her simple visual style. Rather than looking polished, Stores We Tell looks rough and messy.. much like the super 8 home movies and broadcast air-check tapes she weaves into the film. We see handheld footage of the interviewees being setup for the interviews, shots of clutter in the interviewee’s homes, images of making tea or telling an un-related story. It disarms us. It makes us feel that we are somehow part of this family’s inner circle. Then there is Polley herself. She’s an accomplished actress, yet here she comes across as simply being honest and curious. Although she herself is a central character in this story being told, we get the sense that she’s being nothing but her true self, trying to discover the story from her family. She doesn’t shy away from adding her remembrances, but, they are presented with equal weight to the others. This is how I think Sarah Polley pulled it off. We believe her. The twin role of the documentarian trying to find the truth and present a balanced version, and a participant trying to find the truth and interpret it, comes across as completely genuine.
More than just the examination of the process of searching for the truth, Stories We Tell also gently explores the many more themes. The reasons we hold beliefs, the way we project our beliefs, and how we reconcile these beliefs when presented with contradictory remembrances. Polly doesn’t guide us here; she simply shows these things to us leaving us to draw our own conclusions.
Probably the most unique, gentle, disarming, and enjoyable documentary I have ever seen, and another feather in Sara Polley’s cap. She is a director to watch.
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