By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
Canadian actress turned director Sarah Polley has only made three films, but their influence has turned her into one of the most acclaimed talents under 35 in the world. Away From Her got her an Oscar nomination, Take This Waltz got her mainstream attention, and now Stories We Tell is likely to put a statue on her mantel.
Stories We Tell is Polley’s first documentary, and she picks a very personal topic- her own heritage. Her mother, Diane, passed away when she was only 11, and she interviews family and friends both to create a portrait of this woman, and to recount her uncovering of a family secret that lies at the heart of who she is.
I love my family, but if I had to pick another, it would be the Waltons, clearly. After that, the Polleys would be a pretty good choice. The subject matter here would have torn apart a lesser family than this, and even a stranger one would be hesitant to discuss it for the world to see. Yet Polley is able to get everyone to weigh in, and they are gracious and obviously full of love for each other. Ten Pixar films put together couldn’t be this heartwarming.
Now that Disney’s in charge, that might happen
Stylistically, the film is pretty standard, and the combination of old photographs, interviews, and people reading letters aloud feels kind of like if Ken Burns made a documentary about himself.
Morgan Freeman’s voice: “The story of Ken Burns began with a whimper, not a bang.”
It serves the subject well, though, and as we get further along Polley’s greater agenda in telling family stories reveals itself- she’s trying to pin down how memories and even truth changes with time and perspective; how the stories we tell become divorced from reality, and how that reality becomes more ephemeral as time marches resolutely over and past it.
Perhaps this is tied to her larger thesis, but these folks really have gotten over this to the point that they’re weirdly matter of fact about it all. Chalk it up to “time heals all wounds”, I guess.
Excepting Alabama, of course
Also, at least a sip goes to the hype machine (which I’m abetting by not naming the family secret). Once it hits, you’re more likely to think “that’s it?” than gasp and swoon. Polley herself seems to construct things this way on purpose, and if you haven’t figured things out by the big revelation, you should probably put your damn smartphone down and pay attention.
Sarah Polley tells a very personal story in a very compelling and heartwarming way in this much-lauded documentary. For fans of the genre, it’s a must-see.
Take a Drink: for every new interviewee
Take a Drink: whenever Diane is referred to as outgoing
Take a Drink: whenever she’s referred to as secretive
Do a Shot: when mortality is confronted
Stick around for a perfect “Oh Shit!” last reveal