A Director Confronts Her Past in “Stories We Tell”

Sarah Polley is one of the industry’s most exciting young directors, although I can’t blame you for not knowing her. Throughout her career,  she has followed her own path and consistently avoided the trappings of Hollywood. After starring in such mainstream hits as Go and Dawn of the Dead, she moved behind the camera at the age when an actress is entering the prime of her career. But she quickly silenced any doubters. Her first film, Away from Her, garnered praise for the young director and award nominations for its star, Julie Christie. She could have gotten a high-profile prestige picture after that, but instead she made the more personal, quite good Take This Waltz.

Her latest film, the documentary Stories We Tell, seems at first glance to be another departure. It is clearly a turn inward: a documentary about her own family that often puts Polley, a captivating screen presence, back in front of the camera, although only as herself. In the hands of a lesser director, it would be an act of pure egotism. Polley, however, addresses that charge head-on: in the film’s first few minutes, her sister voices the question on everyone’s mind: “Who really gives a fuck about our family?”

It’s wise to acknowledge this question that may be lingering the minds of many audience members so early, but Polley quickly puts those fears to rest. Her family’s story is both relatable and dramatic, and if the topic feels a bit familiar, it’s because it is. In both its essence and its details, it’s the story Polley has been telling her whole career.

Stories-We-Tell-Sarah-Polley

The film is comprised of many talking-head interviews with Polley’s family, conducted by the filmmaker herself. In between these interviews, she inserts home video footage and scenes that have been recreated with actors (she never tells you which is which, although most of the time, it’s easy to figure out). The topic at hand is the clan’s matriarch, the young, flamboyant woman who died when Polley was a kid and has, in death, become far more of a myth than a human being. Her legend also comes with an air of mystery; for years, there were rumors that she had an affair with an artist and that Polley may actually be the product of that affair. Stories We Tell marks her investigation into that rumor.

Although it is Polley’s first documentary, she seems at ease with the format. While some directors would surely feel awkward making a film that stars their own family, Stories feels right in Polley’s wheelhouse. In some ways, Stories We Tell is about the stories she has told in her earlier films, both of which could be seen as fictionalized versions of her mother’s life story. Away From Her was about a husband forced to watch his long-time wife, suffering from the Alzheimer’s disease, turn her affections towards another man. There is more than a slight resemblance between Gordon Pinset, who played the husband in Away From Her, and her own real-life father, Michael. Like Stories We Tell, the film was about memory and infidelity, and in restrospect, it feels as if Polley was working through these feelings towards her mother – but letting her in some ways off the hook by giving her surrogate character a memory-altering disease.

The wonderful Take This Waltz doesn’t quite excuse its heroine for her infidelity, but it does explain her actions. Michelle Williams plays Margot, a young  Toronto woman (with short blonde hair, just like Polley’s actual mother) stuck in a stale marriage to a cookbook author (Seth Rogen). Like Polley’s mother, Margot falls in love with a young artist and spends much of the film considering whether or not to act on it. The film’s spectacular denouement finds (SPOILER) Margot leaving her husband and, in a stunning montage that encapsulates an entire relationship in a few minutes, and falling into the same rut that Margot fell into with her husband. The film ends on a quiet note of regret, with Margot learning that fantasizing about another life is not a proper basis for real change.

Perhaps Polley has learned the same lesson, which is why she decided to confront her problems head-on. After having seen Stories We Tell, it is easy to see how Polley was working out her feelings over her familial history in her first two films. There is nothing wrong with this type of therapy-through-celluloid. Most great filmmakers have a small set of values that all of their films inherit – this is the basis of the auteur theory, in some ways – and it’s fair to assume that artists are always working their way through some issues in their past through their work.  But it strikes me that Polley’s inquiry may have been intentional, as if she made this  film to purge herself of this one story that she keeps telling over and over – to get as close to the truth as possible, so her creative mind does not keep obsessing over it through fiction.

Essentially, Polley had to confront her obsessions, both manufacture and deconstruct them, in order to be done with them. Otherwise, they would keep emerging through her subconscious. She would continue being drawn to stories that tried to answer the questions from which she could not escape. Maybe now she’ll be able to do just that and find new areas of to explore. Although even Stories We Tell ends on a note of comic ambiguity, with Polley reminding us that there are always more mysteries to solve. As we follow this young director’s career through the next few years, the most interesting thing to look for is whether Stories We Tell has actually affected the stories she tells.

My Rating: See it in the Theater

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