Stories We Tell manages to be a piercing yet deeply reflexive documentary focusing on Sarah Polley’s journey to find out the truth about her family. Watching the film, it sparked something in me that I hadn’t felt in quite a long time while watching a film: a desire, a curiosity of sorts to investigate what I was seeing myself on screen. We’re told a tale from a woman’s birth until her present day, but it’s seen through many eyes: ones of her father, her siblings, a man who could potentially be her biological father, and relatives who did not experience many of the actions discussed but know of the people involved. I kept thinking throughout the film, “Why don’t I ask my grandparents to tell me their life stories?”
This is one of the most fascinating documentaries I’ve ever seen for that central reason: this is a story about stories. The way in which we remember events or people can be driven by emotion, by selfish desires…yet they’re also inherently part of who we are as people. Memory can dictate so much of a person’s life, and Polley explores that reality better than any fictionalized tale I can remember. It’s mentioned in the film that every family has a story, so what makes this one so special? The aftermath of learning, what stems from the acceptance of changing our stories; a reboot for a tale that many had engrained in their heads.
I very rarely see a sort of moviemaking magic, one in which I’m endlessly captivated by simplistic elements. Yet here is a film that understands its derivation in human emotion, in such an innately, deeply personal tale of a woman’s acceptance and fascination with her family’s past when others might be devastated. There are emotional truths here that we do not see in narratives because those are stories told through a certain lens; this is a story told through many lenses, ones that all hold conflicting emotions. It’s reminiscent of the magical Searching for Sugarman last year, for that was a documentary that had its greatness within its mystery. This one carries much of the same weight. It’s a great film.
Grade: ★★★★★ (out of 5)