Making a personal film takes a certain level of courage on the part of the filmmaker. Allowing the audience into one’s memories, thought process, and feelings is, of course, difficult. That being said, when done successfully, it can often make for great cinema. Sarah Polley’s third film, Stories We Tell, is just about as personal as a film can get. It is also as heartbreaking, honest and beautiful a film you are likely to see this year.
Stories We Tell is Polley’s first documentary, and her most accomplished film yet. It deals with her discovery that her dad may not actually be her biological father. Polley made the brilliant decision to tell the story not from her perspective, but rather from the perspective of just about everyone else involved.
Presented in chronological order, the story is told by her family, family friends, and even possible biological fathers. And with these different perspectives on the story of her family, the film ends up being more about her mother, actress Diane Polley, who died when Sarah Polley was 11.
Her father, Michael Polley, serves as both one of the storytellers and narrator to the film. It is a fascinating perspective, and is a great example of why Sarah Polley’s uniquely personal film never feels self-indulgent. Beyond the storytellers, Polley also employs a mix of home-movies, and reenacted 8mm footage that flow seamlessly together.
The story is rarely seen from Polley’s point-of-view, and instead of this being distancing, it actually makes the film work so wonderfully. She had no control over this aspect of her life, and as such, it is appropriate that she lets the story be told by those directly involved.
Once the film begins to concentrate on her biological father, it becomes its most emotionally effective. Up to this moment, the film is entirely about Michael and Diane Polley, and their family. And then, we are given the parallel story. A story of a man desperately in love with someone he could not have, and with a daughter he did not know. It is a film that breaks you down emotionally, like so few films can.
Many filmmakers put their hearts on screen, but it is rare to see one give so much of themselves to the audience. With Stories We Tell, Polley invites us into her family, and into a life-changing moment. It is a privilege to be allowed into something so utterly personal and important to a small group of people, especially when it is shared in such a beautiful way.