PHOTO BY PHOTOS COURTESY OF NATIONAL FILM BOARD OF CANADA
STORIES WE TELL
Where is it playing?: The Palm
What's it rated?: PG-13
What's it worth?: $$7.00
What's it worth?: $$9.00
Actress (and now writer-director) Sarah Polley helms this personal story about the discovery that she isn’t the daughter of actor Mark Polley, and that in fact her mother Joanna Polley had conceived Sarah in an extra-marital affair, keeping it secret from everyone in the family. (108 min.)
Glen This is a remarkable, amazing, poignant, beautiful film, and also a very odd one. First, it’s extremely personal. Imagine airing your family’s dirty laundry for all to see. The experience of sitting in the audience and watching as Sarah Polley interrogates her siblings, her father Mark Polley, her biological father, and close family and friends, encouraging them to reveal secrets about her dead mother, is uncomfortable to say the least. I couldn’t help but feel we weren’t meant to know this. On top of that, one of her sisters expresses what we all might express at the revelation of our closest family secrets: Who cares? Who cares about our family? Well, it turns out it’s very easy to care, first and foremost because as the portrait of Sarah’s mother Diane develops through Super 8 family films, recalled memories, and reenactments starring Rebecca Jenkins as Diane, we grow fond of this effervescent, larger-than-life woman. It’s easy to judge someone’s infidelity, and it’s easier to judge someone’s elaborate web of lies that kept the truth of her illegitimate daughter from all concerned, but Sarah Polley paints such a sympathetic portrait of her mother, and Mark Polley handles the truth of his cuckolding with such humanity and grace, that Diane becomes easy to forgive.
Steve I really wonder if the general masses that will see this film will actually be able to feel the emotion being conveyed through this story. I’ll be forthright in saying that this movie touched a very strong nerve in me because I was adopted, and in the paperwork I have, given to me by my adoptive parents, there was a hint that I was given up because of a marital infidelity. Last year, I met one of my biological sisters for the first time, and the story from her became even more convoluted, especially after seeing a picture of her father (to whom I bear a strong resemblance) who was married to my mother at the time. Many other of my biological family members swear up and down that my sister’s father is mine also, but there’s a lingering back story that contradicts the family’s story that probably could be the basis of a movie just like Stories We Tell. I can’t begin to describe what it feels like to not know who my father is, and I can’t begin to describe how it feels that, because I started my search too late, I’ll never get to speak to my mother. Of course, I’m not unique, because there are plenty of adoptees and orphans in this world. Sarah Polley’s story is a bit different, though, because she wasn’t really aware that the man who raised her wasn’t her father until she reached adulthood. What I can say is that even though this is a peek into a family’s life that perhaps borders on voyeurism, do realize that there are plenty of people in this world who can viscerally relate to Sarah’s desire to really know where and from whom she comes from.
Glen It’s interesting that you mention your family story and the inconsistencies in it, because in Stories We Tell, beyond the revelations of the family drama lies a meditation on memory, how we form memory, what shapes memory, and how trustworthy our memories are—or should I say aren’t? In Polley’s film, some recall Diane as a woman without guile, whose life is an open book. Others recall her as a woman of secrets. Different people recall the same events in different ways. At its heart, this is a story about storytellers, and they’re all engaging in their own right. Remember, two actors raised Sarah and her siblings, and storytelling is in their blood. The other interesting thing about the film is its examination of character. Michael Polley comes across as a deeply openhearted man, but he’s also honest about admitting he couldn’t give the kind of affection that Diana craved. Then there’s Sarah’s biological father whose demands for control over the story Sarah tells paints him as selfish. He’s much less sympathetic since he clearly tried to take Diane away from Mark and her children. The heart is a strange thing; that’s what I took away from this film: It’s strange and potentially glorious.
Steve Glen and I debated a little about me mentioning the cinematography because that might, for some, trigger a spoiler alert. The Stories We Tell is shot on modern video and Super-8 film cameras. From the beginning, it was really confusing to me that this family had the ability 30 years ago to actually make stunning movie-quality clips of their everyday life. The camera movements, the close ups on family members’ faces, and the overall feel of these family movies just seemed a little too good to be real. In some instances, I wondered why someone was even filming, like at Sarah’s mother’s funeral. It felt really off to me that this family was so perfectly captured on such primitive equipment. This is, of course, not to say that it would be impossible to have such tremendous footage from the past, so don’t get me wrong. Later in the film, it actually became obvious that Sarah and her team filmed the Super 8 footage, because she’s actually shown multiple times walking around with an old camera with a massive warming gel taped to the front of the lens. It was a little shocking to me, because initially I thought all the old film footage was actually her family and much of it wasn’t. It kind of felt like a lie on top of a secret realizing the footage was of actors and not the real family, and I’m still conflicted as to whether this wasn’t intentionally revealed until toward the end of the movie. Does any of this detract from the movie? No, but it definitely is going have me thinking for quite awhile. ∆
Glen Starkey is a New Times staff writer and Steve Miller is New Times’ staff photographer. Comment at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.