In the documentary Stories We Tell, director Sarah Polley’s sister idly wonders on camera why anyone would be interested in their family.
She’s not the only one. This film, which delves deeply into the identity of Polley’s mother, Diane, who died of cancer when Polley was 13, is fascinating - for a while. But about an hour in, it’s clear that this family, like all others, has its secrets and scandals. They are intriguing and titillating and of great concern to the Toronto-based Polleys and their close friends. But they’re not worth 108 minutes of an outsider’s time.
Using photographs, scratchy home movies, re-enactments of treasured memories with family members and friends, and carefully staged scenes with actors portraying family members and friends, Polley gradually unveils a detailed portrait of her fun-loving, adventurous, theatrical and unsatisfied mother. Much of the insight comes from Michael Polley, Diane’s husband, who may or maynot be Sarah Polley’s father. And a great deal of the film is focused on discovering the truth about this question.
But instead of interviewing untold numbers of hard-to-identify people related and connected in various ways to the family, all telling similar tales with cryptic details that vary (hey, recollections can be faulty, even among those directly involved in pivotal events), it would have been a lot easier to use a DNA test. A simple cheek swab, off to the lab, then a brief wait for the results. Case closed. And Polley could have spent this time making a movie with some degree of mass appeal (but please, not another Take This Waltz).
The appeal of Stories We Tell is a twist, involving (surprise!) that ever-elusive DNA test, that’s buried deep in its narrative. But by the time the twist shows up, it’s unlikely that anyone will be paying attention, having mentally wandered off to more attractive cerebral pursuits after wearying of scene after scene of sunny summer backyard pool romps, snowman-building outings, views of messy kitchens and heaped-plate family dinners.
The filmmaker’s mistake is in trusting that an audience will find her family’s secrets as intriguing as she does. Because the film ignores the fact that all families, no matter how they appear to the outside world, are infected with a unique brand of craziness, it turns out not to be as smart as it thinks it is.
Regarding her compulsion to make this film, Polley admits, “I can’t figure out why I’m exposing us in this way.” Join the club.
Stories We Tell 83 Cast: Documentary with Michael Polley, Harry Gulkin, John Buchan, Mark Polley, Joanna Polley Director: Sarah Polley Rating: PG-13 Running time: 108 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 09/06/2013
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