Sarah Polley is one of those talented people who might just be good at everything. She’s been an accomplished actress from a young age, landing roles in nostalgic gems like Road to Avonlea to one of my teen favorites, Go. But where Polley really shines is in her forays into writing and directing: Away From Her, an adaptation of a short story by Alice Munro, earned her an Oscar nomination and last year’s underrated Take This Waltz, starring Michelle Williams, was one of the most emotionally rich and devastating films I’ve seen in years.
Her latest, Stories We Tell (which opens today in limited release), is a genre-bending documentary that focuses on Polley’s own relationships with her family. Coming from a family full of loud personalities and eager storytellers, Polley interviews her relatives about the biggest personality of them all—her late mother, Diane, who had her fair share of secrets.
Polley’s documentary hinges on the reveal of these secrets, so I don’t want to get too much into plot details. But sorting through those secrets through Polley’s candid interviews with her father, family members, and close family friends is fascinating to watch. In telling about her mother’s history, the filmmaker reconstructs the collective memory of who meant so much to many people and learns about who her mother really was.
As with any family, everyone’s stories contradict. Instead of shying away from those contradictions, Polley embraces them. The structure of the film is loose and fluid, a collage of stories that bounce around from interviews and home videos, through time and focus, to create an overarching narrative that speaks to the contradictory nature of storytelling itself.
Polley opens the film with a quote from Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace about storytelling.
When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you’re telling it, to yourself or to someone else.
All of our own stories exist to us differently. We can structure them and put them into a neat narrative, but there’s never really a way to prove that your story is the complete source of truth—especially in families. Even though memory is messy and complicated, Polley shows the importance of stories, why we need them, especially so we can continue to remember those we loved.
When speaking about his late wife in one scene near the end of the film, Polley’s dad mentions a line from Pablo Neruda’s poem ‘Tonight I Can Write’: “Love is so short, forgetting is so long.” The time we have with one another, as Polley explores in all her films, is short. But the time we have to remember, to reconstruct, and to forget, feels eternal. This is precisely why we tell stories, to hold onto our own versions of the truth so we can remember others while finding ourselves within the contradictions.