Review: Stories We Tell

Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell is a reflexive documentary ostensibly about Diane Polley, the director’s late mother. Through a series of “interrogations,” Polley interviews her father, her siblings, her half-siblings, and other members of her extended family. And as the film delves deeper into each testimony, we find out that Polley’s biological father is actually Harry Gulkin, a film producer who Diane had an affair with in Montreal.

Wait, was my summary too expository? Should I elaborate?

Polley aims to show how different perspectives of the same story can contradict and coincide with one another. “Everyone is so attached and connected to their own versions of these events, and unwilling to let them go,” she says in a radio interview. “But not everyone can be right, and not everyone can be wrong.”

There’s a level of self-awareness that permeates into this quirky documentary. Polley calls her interviewees “Storytellers,” each with his/her own perception of the family. When asked to start from the beginning of the story, all of them respond in shock: “The entire story?” And throughout all the interviews, the storytellers would break the fourth wall, talk directly to Polley, and crack jokes.

But most importantly, everyone has a version of the story that’s a little bit different.

Eventually, the film stops to double back on itself. A storyteller asks, “Wait, what is this movie actually about?” While Diane is the central character of Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley’s discovery functions as a crucial turning point. Is the story about a promiscuous wife? A broken marriage? A misattributed paternity? Family members and journalists pile onto the story with their own interpretation. As Polley mentions: “Everyone who heard the story seemed to want to own it…”

Harry claims that the story is about his love affair with Diane, and only the two of them have the right to tell the story. Polley insists on covering multiple interpretations of this story, to which Harry replies: “You can’t ever touch bottom with anything then. We’re all over the place.” How ironic, then, that this murky inconsistency serves as Polley’s core theme.

On the other hand, Michael (Sarah Polley’s putative father) thinks the story is about his relationship with his daughter. In his memoir and in the film’s narration, he explains how he has gotten closer with Sarah despite the revelation that they are not related by blood. They’ve never been more different, and as a result, they’ve never been closer.

Once again, how ironic.

Polley relishes in this narrative ambiguity, something that most documentaries try to avoid. Documentaries traditionally adopt an objective stance on its narrative, claiming that all its content is direct and true. Instead, Stories We Tell detracts from this traditional authority by highlighting how even the film itself is a subjective product. In Brechtian fashion, the film distances its audience from the story, cutting to behind-the-scenes footage of Polley directing reenactments of home movies and historical events.

That said, I argue that Polley herself has the largest influence on the movie. The film has a clear empathy for her father Michael, whose paternity is depicted as warm and nostalgic. You can tell that Polley admires his calm demeanor; he is shocked that his daughter is not biologically related to him, but he isn’t angry or hurt. This trend can be seen in Polley’s other feature films (Away from Her and Take This Waltz), where a stoic husband is able to accept his wife’s desire for another man.

I think back to Zizek’s ideological concept of truth. He argues that truth is traditionally represented as anarchic and chaotic. Furthermore, the only way to maintain social order is to have a single authority figure tell us a series of lies. And, hold on, isn’t that what documentaries usually do?

In the turbulent clash of different perspectives, there’s a greater message within Stories We Tell. What is truth? Polley argues that it is a collage of proofs, rumours, thoughts and feelings, where every single one of us is a storyteller. And in a weird way, that’s true. There’s a necessary subjectivity in every story we tell.

So, uh, does that all make sense? Or should I start over from the beginning?


Either the most honest movie critic in the universe, or the least intelligent philosopher.

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Posted in Film and TV Reviews
2 comments on “Review: Stories We Tell
  1. melbennett says:

    This was one of the most insightful blog posts about Stories We Tell. It’s clear, lively, with a straightforward argument. I really like the section where you quote Harry stating that Polley’s approach to the story will be too messy with so many interpretations and yet it’s that same murky ambiguity of truth that is Polley’s intention and the greatest strength of the film. Most people don’t pick up on that irony nor articulate it as clearly as you did. Excellent work! I laughed at the admission in the intro that your short plot description of the film is too “expository.”


  2. jclodman says:

    What a fantastic post; one with strong ideas and a clear writing style!

    I didn’t realize that each storyteller has their own vision for what the film is about, that more than their recollections of events differ. As you argue, the themes communicated by the story also vary within the family. While Sarah’s version of the film communicates an unusually conceptual message about the nature of truth and how we tell stories, Michael’s version could have been a commonplace tearjerker about the relationship between a father and daughter in the wake of obstacles. While the film explains how our memories and our stories are not as objective as previously thought, your post helped me see that the inherent message of a movie is also fluid and subjective. Its message is also crafted, not discovered, by the filmmaker. I realize now there is no inherent connection between the story of Sarah finding her birth-father and a discussion of the nature of truth. I didn’t see this as a decision to be made. Perhaps this shows how accustomed we are to blindly trusting the expository nature of a film. Even Stories We Tell, a movie designed to challenge our objective notion of truth, managed to convince me that its series of events could only be presented as a movie about one such topic. I now realize that not only is storytelling a mess of people’s opinions, but even a film’s central argument merely one storyteller’s way of looking at the world.


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