Who owns a family’s stories? Do we shape our lore — the anecdotes of how our parents met, the tales of sibling betrayals and truces — as a clan, or do we agree on the outlines while parting ways on the particulars? Is it possible to be anything but subjective when it comes to the legends in our own homes? This is the endlessly complicated subject of Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell,” a documentary inquiry into her past that ingeniously widens in scope until director and audience stand at the edge of the abyss.
At first glance, the movie’s the latest in the nonfiction mini-genre unofficially known as How My Parents Screwed Me Up, in which an earnest filmmaker pins relatives to the wall in an effort to figure out why he/she is so miserable. But Polley immediately starts dismantling the format. A talented actress (“The Sweet Hereafter”) turned gifted director (“Away From Her,” “Take This Waltz”), she initially structures “Stories We Tell” as an attempt to discover more about her mother, Diane, a force of nature who died of cancer when Polley was 11.
The director rounds up the usual suspects: sisters Joanna and Susy, brothers John and Mark, family friends. She’s lucky to be able to draw from an abundance of home movies from the 1970s — an overabundance, in fact. And why does Polley hustle her mild-mannered father, Michael, into a recording studio to read a third-person account of his own failed marriage?
Mysteries start blooming like slow-motion flowers. Both Diane and Michael were Toronto-based actors, the latter quitting the stage for a business career when children came. He’s a quiet, inwardly-directed man, no match for the social whirlwind he married, and when Diane is offered a role in a late-1970s Montreal theater production, she flees. Months later, she returns and the marriage catches fire once more; shortly thereafter, a girl, Sarah, is born. But is she Michael’s?
“Stories We Tell” lifts off from the running family joke that Sarah was another man’s child — a joke everyone found funny but her. The movie records her attempts to find out what really happened, which really means who she is. She pulls at doors, some of which stay stubbornly shut. One of them, almost miraculously, opens.
More than that I cannot say, and, anyway, at about the two-thirds mark, you realize Polley is telling a different story entirely — one about the ways we shape the messiness of family life into legends and lies, the official version and Things We Don’t Talk About. One door that does pop open looks out onto Diane Polley’s earlier marriage and a divorce in which she lost custody of John and Susy — it made front-page news in staid 1960s Toronto — and suddenly the mother’s effervescence is tinged with desperation.
But “Stories We tell” is mostly about how we make narrative out of memory, carving events into fictions that answer our own private needs. It’s a process not unlike directing a movie, a fact of which Polley is well aware and which she gradually cops to, peeling layers off the onion of family mythology until every sibling, parent, and family friend is revealed as the author of what he or she saw. With this movie, Polley wants to put all the stories together and see where they fit together.
Most of us would opt for therapy. Polley is a filmmaker, though, and a tenacious one, and at a certain point in “Stories We tell,” she reasserts her own authorship and whisks the rug out from under almost everything we’ve seen. (I don’t want to spoil the surprises, but I will say in retrospect that this film deserves some kind of prizes for cinematography and hairstyling.)
The film goes meta without losing its mind — a neat trick in our culture of endlessly cross-referencing irony — and the further back Polley stands from her family, the more they re-order themselves before our eyes. Michael, an almost pathetically weak man when the movie begins, emerges as its strongest figure. We realize, as Polley does, that she’s searching for her real father mostly because she’s aching to connect to her mother. And the man she finds, along with the stories he tells, only puts the director more in touch with herself.
“Stories We Tell” is one of those movies you watch on a screen and replay in your head for days, moving between its many levels of inquiry and touched, always, by Polley’s compassion toward her relatives in particular and people in general. It’s a scrapbook seen through a kaleidoscope, where each photograph somehow reveals the person looking at it. It also makes you think about your own family — and then think again.