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Stories We Tell

by Jake Mulligan
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Friday May 17, 2013
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It’s not hard to interpret "Stories We Tell," it’s girl-actress-turned-director Sarah Polley’s 3rd film (and first documentary) from behind the camera. That’s because she - and the rest of the talking heads that populate her yarn - spend the last 20 minutes doing it for us.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Turning the camera onto herself - sometimes literally - Polley’s documentary is a quote-unquote exploration of truth. That’s a fancy way of saying that she filmed a bunch of people telling conflicting versions of the same story. And so we see the members of her family; fathers, brothers, in-laws, old friends, all identified by first name only, as they each begin to tell "the whole story." Interspersed are 8mm "archival" clips of Polley and her family growing up, as well as a narration from her father, taken from a private letter he wrote her. We watch her direct him as he reads it aloud, because meta.

It takes a while before she reveals what "the whole story" is. Polley’s mother, married to a man who here admits he "left quite a bit to be desired," took an early ’70s acting assignment that landed her in Montreal, far from her family. Nine months later, she had Sarah. And so her daughter holds our hand and walks us slowly through the family history: From the jokes that started her suspicions, to the dismissal of such an outlandish idea, to the startling revelation of the truth. The film’s unraveling structure leaves it unwise to spoil much, but most of the voices - save Polley’s mother, lost at a young age to cancer - are here and accounted for. And unsurprisingly, considering the family trade, they’re all quite charismatic - it’s the film’s deepest pleasure.

But the subtext outweighs the text, dragging the whole thing down into conceptual gobbledygook and leaving it feeling less like a personal, needed-to-get-it-out-there document than a well-financed Grad School project. After the tale has been unfurled, she continues to ask her subjects: What was this film all about? What do you think we’ve said? And we sit there, watching, as they congratulate themselves for the profundity of the project. They tell us, directly, that it’s an exploration of truth. Polley reveals that the archival footage was staged (in an obvious tip that everyone will catch immediately, the ’70s-set "home movies" are clearly sourced from the same film stock as some footage she sourced from 2012.)

It’s called subtext for a reason. It’s about the profundity of the delivery, not of the message. Polley gives off the feeling that she thinks she’s made a modern "Rashomon." It’s actually just a really good episode of "Maury."

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