Lionsgate // 2013 // 108 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // September 9th, 2013
Uncovering the secrets buried deep within.
At a glance, Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell may look like a somewhat self-indulgent project. In the film, Polley sits down with members of her own family and asks them to recount the life and times of her late mother Diane. "Act as if I've never heard any of this," she instructs them, hoping to find something interesting in the different spins the assorted participants may offer on Diane's life. Tender though it may be, we can't help but wonder if this is really a story that needed to be shared with the masses. Isn't this basically just a glorified home video? Ah, but as Stories We Tell proceeds, we discover some startling revelations about a secret in Diane's past, and a fascinating meditation on how our feelings, friendships and loyalties can shape our memories. It's also a welcome reminder that Polley is one of the most exciting young filmmakers working today, a director more than willing to plumb the depths of her own life for insight while simultaneously managing to retain an unshakeable sense of objectivity.
The trouble with reviewing Stories We Tell is that the aforementioned major revelation comes fairly early in the film and dominates the rest of the proceedings, so it's difficult to talk about much of what the film is up to. Suffice it to say that the secret is a powerful one, and it's remarkable that Polley was able to keep the story contained until she completed this documentary (indeed, we're told a story of a reporter who had plans to write about it years earlier). Suddenly, a film that seemed like a simple family portrait is a melodrama, a mystery and an examination of just how slippery memories can be (a notion slyly enforced by the inclusion of recreated home videos starring look-alike actors as Polley's family members).
Throughout the film, there's a sense that Polley herself has doubts about whether this project should be seen by the general public. "Who the #$%& cares about our family?" her sister asks early on. Late in the proceedings, Sarah's father Michael gently suggests that the movie may be closer to personal therapy than to a genuine examination of human nature. However, part of what makes the film so remarkable is that Polley (and many of her family members) are so willing to lay all of their doubts and fears out there. They speak very openly about a variety of very personal subjects (one of Michael's sons speaks frankly about his father's discomfort with oral sex) and about their feelings on the film itself (which tend to range from "Well, it's interesting!" to "I don't like it").
At one point in the film, Polley describes a key participant as a man who seems open and honest, yet who also seems to be holding something back. One could say the same thing about Polley herself, who never flinches at allowing even the most intimate of details to be examined yet who mostly refrains from providing her own take on events. We hear so many different versions of the story, but where is Sarah's version? How does she feel about the conflicting takes she hears? I suspect that this mysterious absence has something to do with the fact that Sarah is directing the film, and thus already has a great deal of control over how the narrative unfolds. In one sense, she seems mysteriously absent from much of the film. In another sense, she's omnipresent.
Stories We Tell has received a strong DVD transfer, though it's not exactly a visually stunning film. Much of the movie is comprised of talking heads footage, and the home videos (shot on Super 8) are intentionally grainy and lacking in sharp detail. Still, it looks as good as it's supposed to. The Dolby 5.1 Surround track gets the job done effectively, too, with a handful of indie rock songs supplying a jolt of emotion during some crucial moments. The only supplement included on the disc is a theatrical trailer.
I don't know where Sarah Polley's career may go from here, but at this point I'm eager to see anything she has to offer. She has a remarkable understanding of human behavior, and all of her films are marked by an astonishing combination of brutal honesty and empathetic tenderness. Stories We Tell is really something special. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 2013
MPAA Rating: Rated R
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