“Be careful what you wish for. You might get it.” I couldn’t help but think of that warning after watching the unconventional, compelling, and surprising documentary Stories We Tell. It’s the work of the talented Canadian actress-filmmaker Sarah Polley. She decided to look into her family history and, in particular, the life and times of her late mother, actress Diane Polley, through a series of interviews, dramatizations, and archival footage. The intent was to gain a greater understanding of the parent whose death left her father, actor Michael Polley, as the sole guardian of a pubescent Sarah. What Sarah learned was, to say the least, a revelation — and probably not what she expected.
The resulting film is a mix of family memoir and investigative journalism. It’s also a powerful example of what could be called the Rashomon effect. I’m referring to Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s drama Rashomon, wherein the same story is told by a number of different people with different points of view. Sarah’s on-camera witnesses include her now-retired father, her siblings, other relatives, family friends, and colleagues. Whether we think of them as reliable or unreliable, the combination of disparate voices does paint a portrait of a complex woman and the impact she had on her family and vice versa.
Stories We Tell is an insightful, funny, sad, charming, and ultimately hopeful film, and confirms Sarah Polley as a talented and fearless director to be watched — and admired.