Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Film Review: Stories We Tell (2012)

Michael Polley
At the heart of Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell are a pair of revelations (neither of which will be spoiled here) that, in their own separate and distinct ways, alter the nature of the film and what it means for its participants, but also call into question the nature of how people tell stories. Initially, the film is presented as a fairly straightforward documentary about Polley's family, and particularly their memories of her mother Diane, who died in 1990. Through interviews and archive footage, it slowly builds a portrait of a vivacious, exciting woman who lit up every room she entered and who clearly had a profound impact upon everyone who talks about her.

Since Polley is interviewing her own friends and family, the tone throughout makes for an interesting mix of breezy conversation and rigid interrogation - best embodied by the numerous scenes of Polley asking her father, Michael, to repeat lines of narration - as she forces them to recount and rethink stories that they have lived with for many years, highlighting inconsistencies between different accounts and pressing them for clarification on key points in the narrative. It's this rigour on Polley's part, which is established very early on, that suggests that the film is not merely just about remembering Diane, but something else entirely. Through constructing this web of stories, most of which are broadly similar but with slight differences here and there, she coaxes out the Rashomon-like notion that stories, even those based in our own personal experiences and our own truth, are still constructions, and that each of them varies from person to person, even when we are talking about the same person.

This is where the first revelation, which is a strictly narrative one, comes in, and it is a very cleverly orchestrated one. By building a very intimate and personal image of her mother, Polley places the audience in the same position that she herself might have been in when she first heard this story related to her, or when she first experienced parts of it; she creates the version of her mother that she had when she was a child, which is a slightly simplistic one, then starts to add in complexity slowly, subtly and with great care. She acknowledges that Diane's children knew a different version of her to the one their father knew, and that her father knew a different version than the one her friends knew, but they still form part of a single person and they are all, to one extent or another, true. In the process, she ensures that the twists and turns of the story never feel like cheap shocks; they are merely natural progressions built upon carefully laid groundwork. There are surprising moments in the film, but they feel earned thanks to her rich and layered approach.

That approach is not without its problems, though, since the build up to the key points of the story - or, perhaps more accurately, the tapestry of stories - can feel a little woolly and diffuse, even though Polley's approach to each of her subject is to keep the story moving along and to never get bogged down in extraneous detail. Towards the end of the film, Harry Gulkin, a film producer interviewed as part of the documentary, says that he has misgivings about her approach because giving equal weight to the stories of all these individuals will only serve to muddy the waters and take her further away from whatever truth she is trying to find through them.

While Gulkin's concerns about a lack of "truth" in the film are perhaps overstated, the superfluity of viewpoints does make it slightly sluggish in the early going as it pings from interview to interview, occasionally raking over the same ground to no especial purpose. Since most of the interviewees are actors or storytellers in one form or another, they are never less than engaging, but the first half of the film does exhibit the same lack of focus that made Polley's previous film, Take This Waltz, utterly interminable, albeit in a form which makes more sense given the structural freedom offered by documentaries. There are times when it feels a little like a segment of 'This American Life' (or 'This Canadian Life,' I suppose) stretched out to feature length and without Ira Glass.

It's here that the second revelation appears, and where the first was strictly story-based, this one is about the entire form of documentary film-making. Much as the interviews reveal how different people have different interpretations of a single reality, Polley's formal inventiveness and experimentation forces the audience to question much of what they have been told. In that respect, it's reminiscent of Orson Welles' F For Fake, though Stories We Tell is a much more earnest and less playful exploration of how we construct narratives from our own lives and experiences, though it is no less interesting for that. Polley is not trying to trick the audience, but she is trying to provoke them.

Despite an often too slow opening third, Stories We Tell is a captivation examination of both a very private and intimate aspect of Sarah Polley's life, told through lively and engaging storytellers, but also the nature of storytelling itself. It occasionally hammers that point home a little too forcefully, but it always has the underlying sweetness of the story to carry it through. Crucially, it never allows its more philosophical interest to get in the way of its basic humanity.

Grade: B+