Film Review: Stories We Tell

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Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell is a riveting documentary both through its story and by dissecting how we tell them.

The story is tough to talk about as the reveals are as compelling as any traditional narrative feature I have seen this year, but my recommendations on this film can’t be much higher. Polley’s film is a personal one as she interviews all four of her siblings and her surviving father for the story that unfolds. The picture revolves around the memory of their mother and how she was as a parent, husband and a friend to those around her and the surprises her outgoing personality led to throughout the years. We get different angles and versions of each story from the interviewees, while her father wrote and voice overs the narration of the overarching story all while Polley interjects herself from time to time as well. There are a whole lot of narrators here, as there are in every story, and Polley’s ability to wrangle them all into a coherent narrative, let alone a compelling one, is quite the achievement.

Most people would think that if they interviewed their family for a film it would come across as dull and uninteresting, but Polley is lucky enough to have a number of interesting characters in and around her’s. Her two brothers are the standouts of the siblings, but it’s her father and a friend of her mother, Harry Gulkin that steal the show. As we get deeper and deeper into the story our focus becomes more and more about these two and their roles in Polley’s mom’s life. All of this setting up surprises everyone sort of expected.

Polley does a fantastic job of telling the story not just through traditional interviews, but with some archival footage stealthy mixed in with some Super-8 reenactments of the family during some key events in the story. It seems odd that Polley was able to uncover all of these moments in the home video archive, but even as you realize that this can’t possibly be original videos you just accept the fact because they help tell the story and are integrated so well. It doesn’t hurt that Polley does a fantastic job of making them look incredibly authentic and her background in narrative filmmaking really lends itself to the genuine aesthetic of these clips. There is so much here to assemble, Polley and her editor somehow make it look easy. I have enjoyed Polley’s first two films, but her craft really shines in the documentary format. Her skills as a filmmaker keep getting stronger and stronger as she goes and is currently one of the best young directors out there.

The film’s emotions are what makes it soar though as Polley takes us head first into her family’s history and isn’t afraid to expose it bare. She pulls few punches and gets her family to be just as candid as you would hope. It’s the father/daughter relationship that will really hook you in, and most likely have you in tears by the end of the film, as the most touching moment of the year put on film is in the climax of this one. It’s one of the most complicated expressions of love you will ever find.

Stories We Tell is best to be discovered in the theater and I cannot recommend it much higher. It’s bound to be in my top ten this year while it has cemented Sarah Polley as one of her generation’s finest filmmakers. Often the most extraordinary stories are the real ones and Polley’s certainly fits that bill. Her ability to separate herself from the story and give it to us straight is appreciated, but her ability to wrangle this complicated tale into such a compelling and emotional one is what makes it truly great. Don’t miss Stories We Tell, it’s one of the year’s best.

Stories We Tell is an A

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