Stories We Tell
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 2nd March 2014
The sticky issue of “What is ‘truth’?” which is implicit in all documentaries is none so well analysed as in Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley’s fascinating look at her own mother’s life. If we believe that Polley set off on her journey with a genuine desire to uncover the complexities of the beloved parent she lost at a young age, what makes the film completely captivating is the way in which secrets and lies are unwittingly unveiled, as much to Polley’s surprise as our own.
One of the film’s many delightful qualities is that it’s very much a family affair. Polley’s British dad serves as its narrator, reading words scripted by Polley which often find him describing himself as if from the outside. Her four siblings give their take on situations and people, some more reluctant than others to be drawn – as one says “Who cares about our family? Because every family has a story”. Sure – but with so many different angles and points of view (including startling revelations which come out during filming), not every family’s story can be said to be so gripping.
Polley, who started in show business as a child actor before going on to shoot the terrific films Away from Her and Take this Waltz, shows a real knack for the dramatization of true stories. With what seems like an astonishing amount of archive footage home video fleshing out the father’s voiceover, to-camera interviews are made all the more real thanks to boom shots and set-ups being unselfconsciously left in. This lends the film a natural, fun and often moving feel as we get to know Polley’s glamorous, frustrated actress of a mom through those who knew and loved her. But the daughter’s true talent is in leading her audience gullibly down one path before then turning us around to question the purported reality.
The story that unfolds is so good you couldn’t make it up, and even though the telling turns very meta towards the end, the tinkly piano soundtrack and sheer energy of the characters ensures that this particular story guarantees a fascinating read.