The stories in Stories We Tell, director Sarah Polley’s documentary about the Polley clan, are threefold and classic: (1) a tale of confused parentage; (2) a tale of familial secrets and lies; and (3) a tale about the subjective and elusive nature of truth. Being classics, these are stories we have heard, and ones that novelists and playwrights and filmmakers and memoirists have told, countless times before. Yet Polley behaves as if she invented them, and that behaviour turns corrosive, coating the film’s real sensitivity and intelligence in a smug patina of self-congratulation.
Let’s not worry about the spoiler alert. Polley is enough of a celebrity that her family secret has already hit the headlines: She discovered, fairly recently, that the father who raised her, Michael Polley, was not her biological father. Rather, she was born from a liaison between her late mother Diane and a Montrealer named Harry Gulkin. Clearly, as a private individual, Polley has every good reason to take a keen interest in that revelation; as a public figure, she can even assume that some others, perhaps many, will share that interest. Yet, just as clearly, her duty as a filmmaker is to address the rest of us whose response to the news is a polite but firm, “So what?” In short, she must make her personal story resonate.
To that end, the doc is a technically accomplished pastiche of family interviews, talking heads, resurrected home movies and grainy dramatizations of events, all designed to serve as an “interrogation process.” So, questions will be asked and, early on, sister Joanna is quick to raise her hand: “Who cares about our stupid family?” Oops, sorry, that’s actually a rhetorical question, a bit of false modesty inserted to assure the audience (a) that Polley is aware of the self-indulgent dangers inherent to the confessional mode and (b) that such dangers will be duly transcended in the touching and, yes, resonant testimony to come. An alarm bell rings, albeit still faintly.
From there, two central figures emerge. One is present: Michael, an erstwhile actor and frustrated writer, is frequently posed before a microphone reading from his own remembrances of things past, a memoir that folds neatly within the corresponding (and sometimes competing) memoir that is the film itself. An old-fashioned daddy not prone to displays of emotion (at least until now), Michael offers a clinically honest account of how he met Diane, how their marriage turned “stale,” and how, as an actor herself, she left to do a play in Montreal, where he paid her a conjugal visit. She returned pregnant and, in her 40s, pondering an abortion. Exclaims Michael to his daughter: “It’s amazing how close we were to your never existing.” Yawns me: “Given the whims of romance and the vagaries of fate, the same can be said for every living soul on the planet.”
The second figure is the presence of an absence: Diane, who died of cancer when Sarah was 11. With a few exceptions, Diane tends to be idealized as a charismatic sort – “a contagious personality,” “fun at parties,” “excitable.” In the service of that truth-is-elusive tale, someone recalls, “She lacked guile,” while another insists, “She was a woman of secrets.” Of course, such traits aren’t mutually exclusive at all: Many guileless persons have splendid reasons for keeping secrets. Thus, in that instance anyway, a theme that should resonate doesn’t.
To this point, the film is oscillating from intriguing to dull, revealing to repetitious, frank to disingenuous, and moving to manipulative. Certainly, the smug patina is starting to show. However, matters get intriguing again when Harry pops up, with his grey mane of thick hair and his ardent admission: “I was besotted.” We are told that Sarah, upon having his paternity confirmed by a DNA test, is “speechless.” Understandably. Nevertheless, while the narrative’s whodunit is resolved, our “So what?” issue has yet to be fully tackled.
That’s about to change, although at the expense of unleashing a thunderous volley of self-congratulation. Upon being informed by Sarah, Michael accepts the test result with his usual clinical grace and, from his perch behind the mike, marvels: “It was a terrific story you were telling me.” And again: “This is a great story.” And yet again: “I began to realize what a remarkable story she had thrown in my lap.” Not to be outdone, Harry (to Sarah’s dismay) is equally keen to join the game of duelling memoirs. Why? You guessed it: “It’s a story of great sadness and great joy.” And again: “If a story has resonance, then you don’t keep it to yourself.” And, later, one more time with that alarm bell now deafening: “This story really says so many interesting things about the human condition.”
Indeed, and among those interesting things is the fact that Polley, not content with directing the doc, feels obliged to further direct our response to it, refusing to edit out these blatant advertisements for her material. Truly resonant stories show us, they don’t tell us. They don’t inject a note of levity, and then boast, “It’s impossible to keep the mask of comedy at bay.” They don’t strain to illustrate truth’s elusiveness, and then crow, “The truth about the past is ephemeral and hard to pin down.”
Also, behind her role as chief interrogator, Polley is another presence of an absence here. This is deliberate yet curious, interpretable either as an exercise in necessary detachment or a refusal to air her own deep feelings about her own story. She hints at the latter: “Maybe there is something underneath my need to make this film that I’m denying.” No maybe about it. That “underneath” is called subtext, which could have made this enterprise what it only purports to be: a great and greatly sensitive document. But that’s just an opinion – you know, truth being so elusive and all.