Some of the greatest epics every created are the ones we tell about our own families. These sprawling, multigenerational stories create a mythology all their own that matters most to the people who have lived through them. They are the greatest truths and carefully constructed fictions that we all know by heart. Even if we choose to deny them through some matter of pain or personal inconvenience, a handful of greats have made stellar careers out of making their lives fodder for the best seller list and the box office. Director, writer, and actor Sarah Polley can now add her name to that list with the astonishing and emotionally charged look at her own history in Stories We Tell.
Part documentary and part carefully reconstructed re-enactment, Polley looks at her own familial history not so much to let the audience into her personal life, but out of sheer catharsis. Through talking with brothers, sisters, and family friends, she looks at what it was like to find out that her father might not have been her real dad. Not only examining her own life and eventually tracking down the man who would turn out to be her parent by blood, she also examines how this story affected those around her and those closest to the family.
An intriguing look into the nature and weight of secrets, Polley constructs a tightly controlled narrative out of material that could easily become unwieldy. The emotional pressure to get such a story out onto paper or onto a screen must have been overwhelming, and indeed at one key point the film lets on that Polley was as close to a nervous breakdown as one could get. To her credit, she doesn’t dwell on it, instead focusing on the bonds that make a family what they are no matter how screwed up the situation might be.
The backbone of the film is Sarah’s relationship to the man who raised her. The warmth that she shows towards him and the way she carefully thinks about how to approach the issue with him is nothing short of heartbreaking in the best possible ways. To her knowledge, she was the only person in her life that never deceived her to the degree her siblings, mother, and her biological father did. She constantly wrestles with how to tell him all of this. She started making the film around 2007 without knowing exactly where everything was going to end up, and the very fact that she’s putting the story to film weighs heavily on her own conscience and those of the people around her.
Her tenuous, but oddly understanding relationship to the Montreal theatre magnate that actually turns out to be her father and allowing the stories of her siblings to be told offers the context that makes Polley’s film deeply personal without being didactic or uninteresting. Not once does she frame that her family’s issues are bigger and more important than the issues of other families, nor does she make it a dry and factual genealogical study. Her interweaving narrative constantly manages interesting asides while crafting well rounded pictures of all of her family members, no matter how insignificant they might seem to the story at hand.
Everyone has a story, but not everyone can tell them. Sarah Polley proves to be a masterful storyteller in what’s unquestionably one of the best films of the year. She hasn’t had material this deeply resonant to work with yet as a filmmaker. She’s worked from good stories, but to prove that she can make something this riveting out of something most people can’t articulate, makes this the most special work of her career to date.