STORIES WE TELL is a difficult movie to describe in a way that will make it sound interesting. So I'll focus mostly on what the movie ultimately explores and illuminates in exciting ways...rather than on the mundane sounding "what happened was."
It's a documentary constructed by actress/director Sarah Polley (DAWN OF THE DEAD remake, GO). Essentially, she mixes interviews with family members and friends along with home movie footage, to tell the story of her deceased mother and the secrets she had. Polley is ostensibly searching for her identity (and that's all I'll say)...but the movie has ever so much more on its mind.
First, it is an exploration of how the things that happen to us become the stories we tell to others and that few experiences are really FACTS, but are interpretations of those FACTS or events. While no one differs enormously on the details of the mother's life or other family events...the feelings about those details, the impressions DO differ, in ways subtle or big. For example, when various folks are asked "did you think my mother was afraid of dying?" the answers vary. The FACT is that she did die. But the story becomes either how bravely she faced it, or how she was in denial, or something else. Yet these impressions become facts to the person telling the story, and thus the LISTENER is also influenced.
Second, the movie itself is a fascinating detective story. It's amazing to experience how engrossing this seemingly mundane family story becomes. And to me, not only was the story interesting...but the fact that it WAS interesting says something interesting too. We all have common bonds that we can recognize in each other...that empathy can flow easily when we get to know someone a little bit. The people we see in this film are REAL people sharing some real issues they faced or experiences they had...and these resonate in the viewer, even though we are strangers. I find this experience to have been uplifting to think about.
Finally, the film is also about the idea of a movie documentary. One always knows that the documentarian MUST bring a point of view to their subject...even if only through what they chose to show and what falls to the cutting room floor. The questions asked. The subjects interviewed. Heck, even the title of documentaries often betrays a point of view. But we still watch and willingly absorb. Polley plays with that TRUST that we as viewers have in our STORYTELLER (the creator(s) of the documentary) and slowly turns that on its head. I wish I could explain more...but to do so would spoil a couple of gasp-worthy moments.
So just trust me...this innocuous sounding film is gripping, exciting, incisive and richly rewarding. One of the best films I've seen in awhile.
on July 14, 2013
The best film I've seen since Capturing the Friedmans over a decade ago. It's a documentary about a woman trying to find out who her father is and who her mother really was. There's genius in this work - it's multi-layered, searingly intelligent, and deeply moving. Most of the audience were sobbing at some point when I saw it. It's a documentary, but by no means a run-of-the-mill one, and it has the power of great drama. It's perhaps the first time I've ever wanted to contact a director and thank her for her work. Do see it.
"Stories We Tell" (2012 release from Canada; 108 min.) is the third film from Canadian writer-director Sarah Polley (after "Away From Her" and "Take This Waltz", both excellent). But this is her first documentary, and not just any documentary: this movie looks at the life and times of her parents, and also whether her dad is really her biological father. Her mom Diane comes across as a person who fills the room with energy, whereas her dad Michael is the more introverted type. Nevertheless the two strike up a romance leading to marriage, and eventually kids. Sarah was the third and youngest. At some point in her childhood she is getting teased about not looking like her dad at all, and it becomes sort of a running joke, until it isn't a joke anymore. Sarah eventually decides to investigate the rumors, and gathers all the characters for interviews: her dad (we learn that her mom has passed away many years ago), but also her siblings including two more from a prior marriage that Diane had prior to meeting Michael, and other assorted folks in the theatre and art community in Canada. To tell you much more would surely ruin your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all turns out, but if you have seen the trailer for the movie (which I had) and wonder "was it Tom, or Wayne, or Jeff?", you will be surprised with how it all turns out!
Several comments: first and foremost, this movie shows once again that if you have a strong story to tell, you don't a superhero or specical effects to keep the movie going. I couldn't believe how quickly the time passed. Second, this is a deeply personal movie obviously and yet it resonates with a broader audience because of the universal themes of love, family, and acceptance. Third, I was amazed at the wealth of home movies that were used in the movie, only later to find out that many of them were reenactments filmed on 8mm film. I generally do not like reenactments in documentaries but here it workes because, frankly, I didn't realize for most of the movie that they were reenactments. That aside, most telling is a scene late in the documentary where someone asks Sarrah directly why she is making this movie in this particular way, and she explains how different people see different truths of the same events and hence she brought it from a multi-person perspective. (This is clearly not to the liking of one of the main characters... whatch why!)
Bottom line: this is another great movie from Sarah Polley. The screening at my local art-house theatre here in Cincinnati where I saw this, was very well attended for a late afternoon showing, and I think this movie can become an art-house box office success. If you love documentaries, you cannot go wrong with this. "Stories We Tell" is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
on June 13, 2013
Sarah Polley, a 34-year-old Canadian movie director, delves into a dark family secret in this mesmerising blend of straight documentary and feature film. At the start she says her family had one of the first hand held cine cameras, and this statement appears to explain all the flickering coloured shots of various scenes such as weddings, children playing in the garden etc. It's only half way through that you stop and think "Hang on, how could this particular scene have made it into the family's archive of Super 8 fim?" and then you realise actors have to be involved and then you question whether any of the home movie scenes are real. I don't want to give away too much of the plot, because this is a really thought-provoking work which knocks you off balance in a subtle way. At one point Polley's father tells her she is merciless and I must agree she comes across as more of an inquisitor than a daughter. I only managed to see this once before I had to return it to the rental store and really wish I had watched it a second time. Highly, highly recommended.
on September 3, 2013
After watching this film, I feel somewhat privileged to have had an inside look at Ms. Polley's family. My own family being rather non-traditional, I identified with the characters attempting to connect what they remember happening and what may have actually happened. Michael Polley the patriarch did mention that most of us do have interesting stories to tell from our own families and I agree that one need look no further than the family table on Christmas Day. Very much enjoyed the film and will be recommending it.
on September 6, 2013
I would give this movie 10 stars if I could. I've waited all summer for this movie since it had such a limited cinematic release, and it didn't disappoint. All of Sarah Polley's films have a quiet beauty and pain to them. Getting a glimpse into her life, her story, it's easy to see how she developed that life perspective. Her story is moving and beautiful and painful. It's a meditation on how secrets impact a family using documentary style interviews with everyone involved, but it's also unfolds as a compelling drama. I loved this movie and want to watch it again and again.
on June 6, 2014
Few movies are this subtle. Of course, one has to watch it all the way through in order to completely appreciate it. The whole film is like something that constantly bubbles on top of itself, each leaving a faint residue that builds up.
on August 10, 2014
True, this is not a buddy cop film, so if that's your thing, just stay away. Also, there's no talking animals, explosions, special effects, fast cars, chase scenes, fist fights, gun dealers, drug trafficking, penis or fart jokes, or vampires. For those who dismiss this as boring or slow or who say that there are other more interesting stories to tell, I recommend the Transformers franchise. For those who have an interest in the narratives we project onto the events of our lives or who can appreciate artistic honesty, this movie is a true thriller. This is an unearthing of a family secret, that secret's discovery and the unraveling and reconstruction of the narrative that holds a family together. Polley is right that this is an interrogation. Michael is right that it's not the interrogation she thinks it is. Everyone is vulnerable and empathetic. This movie is gripping in how the plot unfolds, provocative in its examination of how people live through their faults and triumphs, and brave in its honesty. As art, it is utterly masterful in its execution, never cliche, self-pitying, self-adulatory or tricky. If you have ever given your own life a good hard look you will appreciate what has been done here.
on September 30, 2013
STORIES WE TELL is a quietly thought-provoking exposé of how difficult it can be to clarify "simple" truths and how "truth" can vary a great deal according to who you talk to, even when everyone's doing their honest best. The extended family in this documentary film is a most interesting one, and each individual member is a fascinating character in her or his own right, in spite of, perhaps because of, the fact that there is nothing that truly weird about any of them. The extensive use of home video footage from the 60s, 70s, and 80s really carries the film. The small details--e.g., the father's musing on the fly on the wall--are also significant, as are certain fine points in the dialogue between Director Sarah Polley and the family members she "interrogates."
Some true surprises occur during the course of the interviews; STORIES WE TELL goes deep in its own subtle, quiet way. Still, at the risk of sounding like a vulture, I was hoping for some darker--or at least more unusual or startling--revelations. While it's easy to understand why the real substance of the film--I don't want to give away the specifics--is critical stuff for Sarah Polley, it's nothing the average person hasn't seen or read in other works, fact or fiction. STORIES WE TELL also just takes a bit too long to show what it has to show. While the multiple perspectives are intriguing, they become ponderous and repetitive after a while.
In any event, this film functions well as a simple yet very meaningful think-piece. Those who want a lot of variety, excitement, layers & twists, etc, however, may be a trifle bored by it.
Earlier in the year I promised myself that I would explore the genre of the Documentary more this year. I would make a conscious effort to see more documentaries and to appreciate them as a medium for storytelling and as a worthy avenue of filmmaking. That isn’t to say that I turned my nose up at them or anything, I just never really found myself compelled to watch them. I don’t read biographies. I don’t tend to watch those television documentaries (unless they are those hilarious ones on BBC about people who have ongoing relationships with sex dolls). I have just always preferred fiction over fact.
I saw a trailer for a film called ‘Leviathan’ (which I’ve already reviewed) early this year that promised to be the ‘documentary for people who don’t like documentaries’ and so I was compelled to see it. Admirable, but it wasn’t anything wonderful (too avant-garde and underdeveloped). Then I started to read all the glowing reviews for Sarah Polley’s film ‘Stories We Tell’ and since I’m a fan of her work (I really liked ‘Away from Her’ and ‘Take This Waltz’ is easily one of the most underrated films of last year) I decided that I needed to see this movie.
Now THIS is the documentary to redefine the term documentary!
‘Stories We Tell’ manages to be two very different things at once, and balance them so well that one can’t help but become enveloped in every frame. The film is both intimate and personal while at the same time being whimsy and fantastical. It blends fact and fiction in a way I never thought possible and basically creates a genre all its own.
This film belongs alongside films like ‘Zelig’ and ‘Sans Soleil’ as films dwelling within this genre (yes, I’m aware that ‘Zelig’ was a faux-documentary) that break down boundaries and write their own rules and ultimately become benchmarks for greatness.
‘Stories We Tell’ is a masterpiece.
What I think is no neat about this film is that it is not a director exploring a subject that they are merely interested in or vaguely connected to in an extended sense. This is Sarah Polley making a beautiful tribute to her mother. Taking on her parent’s marriage, relationship issues, her early childhood, her mother’s death and then ultimately a shocking family scandal, Polley’s influence, opinion and perspective could have been all over this film in an off-putting and manipulative way, but what makes this film so effective is the restraint that Polley uses in just allowing the interviewees to speak their mind, tell their stories, and inevitably grab our interest. The subject matter, while on the surface may seem rather insignificant or unimportant, has such endearing beauty because it feels so authentic and relatable. This is the story of family, but more than that it is a celebration of memories and how they can shape who we are and where we’ve been.
The same story, told by ten different people, will carry ten different meanings, all of which are equally as important depending on how you chose to look at it.
I don’t want to delve into the scandal addressed in the film’s second half, but there is so much beauty, grace and intelligence to be noted in the way that Polley allows it to be addressed.
One thing that I will touch upon is the visual style with which Sarah uses to color in her documentary. Throughout the film there are so many beautifully detailed sequences of ‘home movies’ that help to pull in the viewer and connect them to the Polley family. Whether it be vacations her parents took or a glimpse of Sarah playing with her father in the yard or an important meeting in a café, these segments help illustrate the intimate story Polley is telling us. When it is uncovered that all of these videos are re-enactments, it becomes all the clearer how brilliant this film really is. Sarah is a visionary director who captured life in a capsule and delivered it wish such substantial style (see what I did there).
And I just want to say that Michael Polley is EVERYTHING. The man is endearing, charming, sweet, heartfelt, honest, passionate and his speaking voice is just captivating. You can sense the love between Sarah and her father and his stamp of approval (and participation) in this project makes it all the more affecting. You fall in love with him, and thus the film takes on an even deeper narrative.
His reaction to the question about what he said to his wife on her deathbed was just…too much for me.
So, I guess it’s clear how I feel about this film. It is one of the best films of the year, period. In fact, outside of ‘Lawrence Anyways’ I’d have to say that this IS the best film of the year. A solid masterpiece in style, substance and technical precision (the editing is so fluid and captivating). This is all around perfection, from every angle.