I have come to understand that maturity, growing older—what you will—is a continual revisiting of our past. We take out a memory from a well-thumbed deck and look at it anew, projecting onto and extracting from it new understandings, nuances, and perspectives. We thus cycle through the times of our life and of those who formed us, and thus form and reform them in turn. In this way, we tell and retell ourselves the stories of our life.
Now it happens quite frequently that I will remember something from my childhood and turn to the only two beings on this earth who will understand—my brother and my mother—for verification, validation, commiseration, celebration—or dammit, just recognition—only to get back a puzzled silence. They don’t remember it. Or they remember something else as having happened. Or they remember something that strikes no chord with me. Or one or another of us will remember an episode but the lead player in our respective memories is different. Or the outcome.
It is this strange and vital phenomenon of familial memory that Sarah Polley takes on in her brilliant work, Stories We Tell (and I rather admire that it’s not “The” Stories We Tell). The stories examined involve her mother, whom we quickly realize is the one person missing as she assembles, preps, and establishes the cast for her documentary—her father, her brothers and sisters, family friends and acquaintances. After an extended introductory segment of settling in her various interviewees during which their tentative approach to the project is revealed, Polley asks them one by one to tell the story of her mother, Diane, from beginning to end. From the time she met and married Michael to her death of cancer when Sarah was eleven.
An impossible task. I don’t think I could tell my parents’ stories like that. But gamely, they jump in, particularly her father, Michael, who is aided by a thick manuscript which he wrote: a memoir that she directs him to read. She then intercuts his narration with remarks from her brothers and sisters and then with silent, Super 8 home movies. And the story unspools…
And it is quite a story. An extremely colorful, vibrant, vital woman emerges from collective memories and the home movies. A marriage is explored. And a secret is revealed. I don’t think I will tell that secret here, although several reviews do (I like this one, though, that does not) and although the movie ultimately isn’t really about that secret.
The movie is about family, and for something that tells so personal and so unique a story, it is eminently relatable. And the reason for that is the very loving people who make up her family circle. These people care about each other, and this is revealed in sly jokes, light teasing, sardonic statements. Did the discovery of the secret change anything, Sarah asks an older sister. No, the sister says staunchly, no. Oh yes, except for all the girls in the family getting divorces immediately after it came out. But other than that, no. These people share a sharp sense of humor, a well-honed sense of irony and theatricality. And not surprisingly: both Diane and Michael were actors. These people are used to telling stories in a natural manner for large effect; they use language—both verbal and non-—extremely well.
To counterpoint these frank, sometimes funny revelations, the filmmaker uses a number of devices that in other contexts would seem manipulative. Despite the opening instruction and seeming intent, the story is not told from the real beginning to end. Three-quarters through, it doubles back to a different beginning, one we never saw coming and one that recasts everything that came before. And the mystery of how all these family movies of pivotal moments exist is revealed at the end. And contrary to Sarah’s stated desire to have everyone contribute equally to the story, there are minor and major voices, and we are nudged gently—sometimes by the filmmaker and sometimes by our own logic—to question the reliability of these various voices. But these devices are not manipulative and not intrusive, even though they manipulate the story and the storytelling. And rather than make the storyteller and her cleverness more prominent, they instead make the subject of familial love paramount, and our understanding and appreciation of this subject—and of Diane Polley—deeper.
Much is made in the film and in talk about the film of how people’s memories are often contradictory, and how hard it is to arrive at truth when comparing people’s memories. I did not really find that to be the case, however. Either the nuances of discrepancy are so much more apparent to Sarah than they are to the viewer, or Polley the filmmaker is exercising yet another manipulation. To my mind, everyone more or less agreed on Diane’s character and actions. There are a few notable exceptions to this, and these exceptions reveal more about the “rememberer” than the remembered. For example, when Sarah asks Michael if Diane knew she was dying, he answers emphatically that she did not. Yet everyone else interviewed has sadly agreed that yes, she did know. His conviction, taken together with what we have learned of their marriage, leads the viewer to question yet again if Michael ever understood Diane or knew what she was thinking. But Polley doesn’t let us condemn him as dense or unfeeling. Because the film is about acceptance. (For Polley’s own perspective on the film, see here; it’s a fascinating essay.)