Stories We Tell by Frank Ochieng (film review).

Immensely thought-provoking and reflective, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Sarah Polley (‘Away From Her’) delivers an enticing documentary about the theme of obligatory dark family secrets and turns her unassuming project into an intimate and compelling jigsaw puzzle of mystery, reminiscence and probing personal discovery. ‘Stories We Tell’ is undoubtedly fascinating in its experimental vibe about one gifted artist’s quest to delve into familial territory and search for an elusive sense of completeness. Polley’s journey — through the storytelling methods of family, friends and associates — is quite compelling, sweet, complicated and revealing.

What makes ‘Stories We Tell’ so original in its unique skin is the refreshing approach to how the actress/writer/director Polley arrives at the hidden truths in her ability to interrogate, interview and unravel the pieces about her cherished past as well as create a magical memory lane for the talking heads involved in her creative process. One mentioned tidbit links to another and soon Polley and her close posse of storytellers are reliving elements of joy, pain, nostalgia and regret, all triggered by one woman’s preoccupation with her determined stamp of existence. Soon Polley’s family ties-related travels will take her and loved ones into an unsuspecting self-discovery that is both shocking and reassuring.

In the early stages of the film, one of Polley’s siblings pretty much sums up the perspective of her purpose for familial identity when she quips, ‘Every family has a story.’ Well, ‘Stories We Tell’ does point to the provocative and playful times of stories and antidotes shared before Polley’s emergence into the world in 1978. Naturally, the immediate course of action for Polley was to examine the relationship of her beloved parents Michael (who contributes largely to the storytelling vignettes) and the deceased Diane Polley. Both were Canadian stage performers blessed with the abilities of acting, singing and writing.

It is clear that Michael and Diane were eccentric souls on the performing stage and off. The details of their marriage were quite interesting as children entered the equation thus affecting the priorities of their show business careers. Michael was rather laid back about his acting profession and chose to linger about the house and enjoy the company of the kiddies. Diane, on the other hand, was hungry and striving for more opportunities to perform and be independent. As told to Sarah by Michael and others that vouched for her character, Diane was a free-spirit exuding an energetic playfulness. Her exuberance was infectious according to her stage play colleagues as Diane wanted more for Michael and herself career-wise. Michael, with some evidence of sadness in his eyes, commented that Diane had always made it known that he had squandered his talents and could have been more ambitious and assertive.

Interestingly, ‘Stories We Tell’ takes on a darker shade of sorrow as Polley uncovers the scattered demons of her overly spry and popular mother Diane that would follow her to an early grave. Stark discussions lead to such fodder as Diane’s deteriorating marriage to Michael, her continued expectations of finding rewarding acting gigs, brief contemplations with abortion, an uneasy first marriage to a man named George and eventual abandonment of her two children with him (Diane Polley is believed to be the first woman in Canada that lost custody of her kids to her husband for adultery) and the several love affairs outside of her marriage to Michael.

Through these varying accounts from her father Michael, a handful of siblings, Diane’s close buddies and co-workers and even former lovers (i.e. ex-acting pal ‘Jeff’ and award-winning Canadian producer Harry Gulkin) we see how affecting it is in Sarah Polley’s eyes to experience the bouts of sadness and conflict her mother endured as she longed for stability and happiness. As loving and adoringly wacky as Diane Polley was at heart’ she was also hurting inside and trapped with unkind memories of personalised failures.

When the film shifts into an emotional and psychological mode where find that Diane’s wandering eye was the cause of Sarah’s conception from another man and not the good-natured rascal Michael we realise how both devastating and exhilarating ‘Stories We Tell’ is at its twisty core.

Should we feel outraged and sorry for Sarah Polley upon her stumbling across her mother Diane’s sexual dalliances that resulted in her birth? Which of the men that was instrumental in her wounded mother Diane’s life is the actual birth father? How will this revelation impact Sarah’s relationship with her ‘other’ father Michael and the siblings that are now considered half-siblings? Can Sarah and her newfound birth father make up for all that time lost? More important, can the Diane Polley be forgiven for a chaotic lifetime of loves, laugh and loss?

The intriguing factor behind ‘Stories We Tell’ is what Polley’s dutiful documentary set out to do and that was to ask the tough questions and come up with the complex answers. ‘Stories We Tell’ is unapologetic, inspirational and hits a raw nerve about the resiliency of whom and what we are and where we hail from. Do we have the fortitude to overcome our adversity or can we benefit from the advantages we were given?

As a preferred subject matter Diane Polley was Sarah’s ‘mysterious woman’ at large. In adulthood and motherhood, she was seriously flawed in many aspects. Still, the affection and respect that Polley as a movie-maker reserves for her talented late mother and the available storytellers on hand to bridge together tales of healing through various on-the-spot recollection is indeed an absorbing blueprint to share with an otherwise judgmental world.

Stories We Tell (2013)

Roadside Attractions

1 hr. 48 mins.

Starring: Sarah Polley and various storytellers

Directed by: Sarah Polley

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Genre: Documentary

Critic’s rating: **** stars (out of 4 stars)


Frank Ochieng has contributed film reviews to SF Crowsnest off and on since 2003. He has been published in other various movie site venues throughout the years. Ochieng has been part of The Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and had written film reviews for The Boston Banner newspaper (USA) and frequently is a media/entertainment panelist on WBZ NewsRadio 1030 AM on "The Jordan Rich Show" in Boston, Massachusetts/USA.

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