After two exceptional dramatic features, “Away From Her” and “Take This Waltz,” Sarah Polley appeared to be taking a discursive left turn with a documentary on her own family. As it turns out, the alternately playful and elegiac “Stories We Tell” is wholly of a piece with her fiction work, and just as rewarding. A shape-shifting study of her late mother’s infidelities, sewn from the occasionally sparring firsthand accounts of loved ones, it’s another delicate, surprising reflection on intimate relationship politics from the young Canadian. Only adventurous arthouse distribs need apply, though the pic’s appeal isn’t limited to the Polley faithful.
The title may appear blandly noncommittal at first glance, but proves more telling as it becomes clear that Polley is less concerned with family history than with family narratives, and how oft-repeated untruths and assumptions can distort or even fabricate memories. Similarly, Polley’s own storytelling is deceptively artful in its orchestration: What seems a happy shuffle of freeform talking-head interviews is actually sequenced into a startling series of reveals. Meanwhile, through canny casting and filming, apparent homevideo footage emerges as wistful reconstruction, as the director underlines the pliability and artifice of all her contributors’ recollections — her own included.
Polley’s point may be that all family life, in retrospect and in the moment, involves an element of performance — though given that the actress-helmer hails from a thesp household, hers perhaps involves a little more than most. While Polley’s British-born father, Michael, is present as both interviewee and narrator (thus contributing two perspectives, one spontaneous and one manipulated), the focus is primarily on the one immediate family member not around to represent herself: her mother, Diane, a minor showbiz figure in Canada, who died of cancer before Polley (the youngest of Diane’s five children) hit her teens, leaving behind a tangle of personal secrets that remained knotted until 2007.
The film’s opening reel promises a glowing eulogy of sorts to the evidently vivacious Diane, played in jagged flashbacks by Rebecca Jenkins, before the emphasis shifts to her loving but imperfect marriage to Michael. Certain revelations about the latter trigger an investigation into Polley’s paternity that gives the film its true emotional heft. Across a series of supportive but understandably bemused testimonies from her father and close-knit siblings, specifics are carefully rationed, perhaps to reflect Polley’s own uncertainty of her place within the clan.
Guided by a heavier hand, this subject matter could easily have made for a lurid, self-serving film, but watching this loving brood gradually peeling back their non-nuclear roots is profoundly moving to witness. Especially affecting is a speech by the dry, avuncular Michael about his paternal claim on the daughter behind the camera: “What a vicious director you are,” he says, half-chuckling as his voice catches and buckles.
Although it’s never mentioned, the fact that the self-discovery mapped out here by Polley was completed in the gap between her first two features is an intriguing one. Intentionally or otherwise, it certainly makes “Stories” a pertinent companion to “Take This Waltz,” which charted a married woman’s restlessness with equally even-handed candor. Tonally, however, the film perhaps hews closer to “Away From Her,” with Iris Ng’s airy, soft-hued lensing (no-nonsense digital for the interview sequences, elegantly bleached Super 8 for the reconstructions) lending the proceedings a wintry grace. Editor Michael Munn, meanwhile, patiently waits out certain interview sequences, perhaps heeding the Margaret Atwood quote with which Polley opens the film: “When you’re in the middle of a story, it isn’t a story at all.”