Stories We Tell, the sterling documentary from Sarah Polley, is a delicately assembled exploration of a family and how the stories they tell weave together a complicated tapestry. Sarah Polley starts the film nimbly enough presenting all of the subjects, her family members and close family friends. But what starts out as a simple exploration of memory quickly blossoms into an examination of secrets, memory and the human condition. It’s mesmerizing filmmaking, a combination of acted archival footage, interviews and voice recording sessions that congeal together quite well.
The filmmaking Sarah Polley employs here is among the finest I’ve ever seen in a documentary. She navigates the complex waters of family, but never once passes judgement. It’s one of the few documentaries I’ve ever seen that doesn’t attempt to take anyone’s side. That’s a miraculous thing to accomplish in narrative films let alone documentaries, and give the subject matter of this doc you’d think it nearly impossible to maintain neutral, but somehow Polley does. Also interesting is her choice to recreate family memories and older footage by casting actors to portray her family and filming with a Super 8 camera. It’s a bit of an inspired choice, helping the audience gain a familiarity with all the main players as they were when the story took place.
It’s incredibly difficult to even summarize the plot with out giving away major details so I’m going to go speak about that below.
***SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT DON’T READ UNLESS YOU WANT TO KNOW PLOT DETAILS***
The main crux of the narrative is about Sarah Polley finding out that her mother had an affair and that father isn’t her biological father. Polley has said in many interviews that it wasn’t her intention to have this being a secret, but because its such twist in the story its best to keep it in the spoiler section. It’s amazing how the documentary transforms once that is revealed. Where a lesser story could have just focused on the seedy side of the relationship, it becomes more of a celebration of the lives these people have led. Stories We Tell manages to be above reproach by not hesitating to engage in the moral ambiguities and complexities of relationships. In contrasting scenes you have Sarah’s non-biological father saying that Sarah (and by extension the audience) shouldn’t blame her mother for having an affair because he hadn’t been a good husband for years and Sarah’s biological father explaining the love they had. It’s a strange thing, being asked to understand all of these motivations and be okay with what has transpired, but the point of the documentary is not to pass judgement, just to reconstruct life as it was lived.