Sarah Polley is one of the most frustrating active filmmakers. Her obvious intellectualism and hipster sensibilities often combine with characters who more resemble cartoons that people, and mawkish passages of dialogue that can leave members of the audience wanting to silently throttle whoever’s talking. Her 2012 Take This Waltz had a star comic turn by Sarah Silverman, a Leonard Cohen soundtrack, and a passage where Michelle Williams fakes a disability in order to gain first entry onto a plane – or, as she describes it, “It’s just … I’m … afraid of … connections.” Yet despite this, the film’s central question – is there any way of filling “that bit missing in our life” – was heartbreakingly well told.
Polley’s new film Stories We Tell charts similar territory, but rather than a fictional film, it’s a documentary about Polley’s own uncertain father and her search to find the truth about her conception. This is a matter complicated by the death of Polley’s mother when she was only eleven, and a melancholic father. We are introduced to another hipster clan, her family, and unfortunately other painful periods of dialogue. But much like her other films, Stories We Tell overcomes the faults of its telling to become emotionally engrossing. The questions it raises about memory, history, inheritance, and identity should feel trite and bloated, but its Polley’s great skill as a dramatist to make these passages sting and flow.
Her visual style, mixed between re-creations, genuine footage, and current interviews, is simple but deeply affective. The camera in the found footage from Polley’s childhood settles on her mother, Diane, and the complexities in her character and actions, things that don’t become any clearer as the film progresses. She was a woman with many reasons, each of which is explained by a different member of Polley’s family, and all of which contribute to a sense of overwhelming confusion.
As Polley’s father pronounces early on in the film, stories only make sense in retrospect when the human desire to understand complicated situations sorts our experience into digestible narratives. The same is the case with Stories We Tell, whose emotionally intense and remarkable set pieces only come into focus sometime after viewing the film.
I first caught Stories We Tell back in June at the Sydney Film Festival where I sat with my bemused grandparents who were keen to support my obsession with filmmaking. Watching the complexity of hidden family stories unfold on the State Theatre’s wide screen left us in a state of strange exhilaration; it was the only one of the films that I saw at the festival that was greeted with loud applause. While having coffee afterwards the film also fed a conversation between my grandparents and myself about my own parents and their opaque courtship, something that has always remained a mystery. The stories I heard reaffirmed something very central about the place of family and how unsatisfactory inherited stories can be. Polley hints at both these ideas, and floats her family off the screen, having delivered a glimpse into their very human world of compromise and how these people, at the very least, made sense of their world.