To understand how memory is fluid, just ask two relatives to recall the same incident. More often than not, their recollections will have major discrepancies. Next, throw in more family members from different generations, and layer onto that a mealy mix of secrets; pretty soon a simple story turns into a Russian novel. That’s what the unfairly talented Sarah Polley comes up with in her engrossing documentary exploration of how the bricks of memory are untidily piled together to create messy and incomplete personal stories, and out of those stories comes a life. Or a version thereof.
This quizzical dive into her family’s legends is a highly literary conceit, and so Polley starts with a quote. Being a good Canadian, she goes to their national treasure, Margaret Atwood: “When you’re in the middle of a story, it isn’t a story at all.” From the start, Polley plays with the fungibility of her family’s reality. She puts her father, Michael front and center. A writer himself, he has written down the story that she wants to discuss, the great and dramatic mystery of her flamboyant actress mother Diane, who died when Polley was young. Polley sticks the humble but witty Michael in a recording studio and puts him through his paces as though they were just co-workers. “It’s an interrogation process,” she cracks as he squirms.
Polley goes to her siblings to see what they remember of her mother and the incidents that transpired before her death. Initially it’s mostly texture. We see home movie footage of Diane, a vivacious talker with a broad, Amelia Earhart grin who is never not dancing or doing five things at once. This is contrasted with the more retiring and closed-off Michael. There are hints of unhappiness, Diane feeling stultified in their quiet Toronto neighborhood. When she gets a role in a play in Montreal, she fairly leaps at the chance. Throughout, Polley seeds in little dramatic bomblets. The abortion that didn’t happen at the last minute. Affairs and rumors of affairs. Questions of paternity. Cancer.
The more Polley lets the audience discover, the murkier the story gets. There is the fact that all the three of the major players here (Polley as questioner, Michael, and Diane) are actors. Even though her siblings don’t appear to be professionals, they are each effortlessly droll and thoughtful in the way of the natural-born actor. Then there is Polley’s tactic of strategically inserting faked home movie footage, with other actors playing her family; all shaky edits and big say-cheese smiles and bulky 1970s sweaters behind a scrim of artificial 8mm grain.
Many times, Polley interrupts a series of emotional revelations by cutting back to herself in the studio, listening to her father’s artfully etched narration, and then asking, “Dad, can you take that line again?” Eventually, the saga of her family’s tangled history coheres to a certain degree, and what had been a whimsical and poetic journey into the past takes on a lacerating emotional heat.
With a lesser filmmaker, the purposefully visible structure of Stories We Tell would be stagy, an attempt to attach postmodern literary import to another family-secrets documentary. But Polley isn’t avoiding or dancing around the subject. Her desire to let the audience in behind the curtain is the whole point. In listening to and watching somebody tell a story, you are watching a reality take shape.