Look at those old photos of your parents, when they were young and trim and beautiful. Mysteries inhabit those images. Were they as happy as they appear, before the children came? Were they compatible back then? Were they self-conscious of the camera?

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Sarah Polley’s brilliant film Stories We Tell doesn’t try to answer those questions. Rather, she lets her own family tell stories to the camera, stories full of wishful thinking and contradictions — all told by the charming members of her family, expert storytellers all, even if they’re a bit nervous and self-conscious before her camera.

This is the best film I’ve seen in 2013. It might be better than everything I saw in 2012, too.

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Polley specifically focuses on her mother, who died from cancer when Sarah was only eleven. Diane Polley was lovely and vivacious and is captured in an almost too perfect series of super-8 home movies (later, we learn why so many of those perfect home movies exist). Diane dances through those scenes so quickly and magically that we can hardly get a glimpse of her except to feel drawn to her like moths. No wonder Sarah, blonde like her mother, is so riveted.

But those shots are intercut with interviews with her siblings and her father, Michael Polley (a British-Canadian actor I know from the wonderful series Slings & Arrows), interviews that reveal not just contradictory views of their home life but also some secrets only half lurking in Diane Polley’s history.

02In fact, Sarah lets her father tell a goodly portion of this story; knowing very little about the film, I was nevertheless surprised to see it open with him in front of a microphone, reading his own prose about his wife’s brief and complicated life.

This is surprising because (and I’m not really spoiling anything here, I promise) a goodly portion of the story ultimately revolves around the question of whether Michael really is Sarah’s father.

Screen-Shot-2013-04-02-at-3.22.13-PM-620x328But let me assure you, you’re not going to see this film out of prurience. Rather, it’s because ultimately 1) Sarah’s family can tell some fucking stories; 2) her family’s history has the most wonderful, literary twists and ironic turns that it’s downright better than fiction; and 3) she ultimately crafts a film that gets at something larger than the truth of her parentage.

If it sounds pretentious to say that she’s more interested in the stories we tell, let me assure you it isn’t. Maybe because I come from a family of storytellers; maybe because my academic work is preoccupied with stories; maybe because I’m fascinated by family stories in particular — for all these reasons the film entranced me. I thought simultaneously, “I’ve got to show this to my students” and, “I’ve got to show this to my family.”

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But in the end, I found Sarah Polley’s own place in the film to be the most interesting. On the one hand, the story is very much about her parents. But on the other, she removes herself as an emotional character, stepping back and appearing only to show herself crafting the film, making decisions about its narrative, and asking her father to repeat a line for emphasis, or to give it a nicer reading. That restraint (modesty? honesty?) is so beautifully conveyed that it feels like a masterful work of analysis. She even allows Michael Polley to read one of the best lines (his own prose):

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 … It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.

[Updated, 8:47 pm: Aldine reminds me that this isn’t Michael’s prose — it’s lines from the Margaret Atwood novel, Alias Grace. This is what I get when I neglect to write about a film until 2 weeks after seeing it!]

And you know in your most gut level how hard it must have been to sit in her position during the creation and telling of this story. What a smart, delicate film this is. The bar is very high.

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