In 2006, Canadian actress Sarah Polley directed Julie Christie to an Oscar nomination and herself to a variety of writing and directing awards for her feature debut, Away From Her. Now Polley turns to the documentary format in Stories We Tell, which is essentially a glorified home movie about the filmmaker’s family and a potent secret buried for years in its collective past. In circling around her quarry, a family rumor, a joke, really, that she decides to investigate, Polley attempts to give her subject universal appeal by stressing the theme of communal family storytelling, and the places where family story and true history either converge or split apart.
And the Polley family story she tells certainly has dramatic impact, once the truth is finally untangled from the myth surrounding it. Still, the viewer might agree when Joanna Polley, one of four other siblings interviewed in the film, laughs, “Who cares about our family?” Sarah Polley’s claims that her film taps into something universal in the family experience, yet we wonder if this story really needed to be told outside her immediate clan. The film centers on the relationship between her father, reflective, solitary Michael Polley, and the vivacious life-force that was her mother, Diane; they met as stage actors in Toronto (although Michael claims Diane fell in love with a part he was playing). What seems to begin as a daughter’s quest to get closer to the mother she barely knew becomes a portrait of love, lies, disappointment, regret, and a nugget of family intrigue with surprising repercussions. We also see how filmmaker Polley has overlaid her own layer of secrets and lies, although this is not revealed until the last 15 minutes of the film. Polley demonstrates her command of film language; these seamless additions are ingeniously done, inviting us to question the act of storytelling itself and the elusive nature of “truth.” But it also feels a bit like cheating, as if Polley couldn’t resist fictionalizing some portion of the material for public consumption. It also feels like her attempt to graft on a punchier thematic finale for the film, after her family revelation runs its course. Although it can be poignant and wryly humorous, the film mostly plays like an evolved episode of reality TV. (PG-13) 108 minutes. (★★1/2)