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HomeBlogPopcorn Parent Movie ReviewsFamily Movie Review: Stories We Tell (PG-13)

Family Movie Review: Stories We Tell (PG-13)

That sounds fatalistic, but “Stories We Tell” isn’t needlessly morbid; rather, it asks the questions we’ve probably always considered, somewhere back there in the deepest recesses of our minds. If our childhoods weren’t what we thought, does that mean we aren’t the adults we think we are? How much does the past impact the present? Polley’s documentary draws its power from its exploration of the narratives we always go back to, and its methodical dismantling of those fantasies. They’re somewhat of an illusion, she argues, and their overwhelming presence comes from us.

The film, which took Polley five years to make, begins with a quote from Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood: “When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion,” she wrote in the novel “Alias Grace,” an adaptation of which is Polley’s next film project. “It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you’re telling it, to yourself and to someone else.” With that directness, Polley lays out her stakes: there will be something dramatic here, something tense, something that needed to be retold to be understood. And so we’re eased into a series of surprises, as Polley introduces us to her father Michael and a variety of siblings and family friends; she’s gathered them to talk about her mother, Diane, who died when Polley was about 11 years old. Who was Diane, really? Weirdly enough, no one seems to know—or at least, they think they knew her, but they can’t seem to agree.

Michael reads excerpts from his memoir and shares his impressions of Diane, but they don’t always sync up with what his children say. But what the children say sometimes contradicts one another. And then the family friends are there, too, throwing their own different ideas into the mix. So Polley sifts through this all, attempting to grain some intrinsic truth about her mother—or, perhaps, is there none? Is that information lost; the memories of her only constructed?

That inward gaze permeates “Stories We Tell,” but Polley doesn’t come off as self-absorbed; instead, as she turns her camera onto other members of her family, everyone gets a say in the story they’re communally trying to share. Polley’s relationship with her father is particularly affecting, and it’s clear that their years together as she grew up after her mother’s death were quite formative indeed. “I felt closer to you than I ever felt about the other children,” he says, and it’s heartbreaking in its honesty.

But then Polley throws in genuine Super-8 footage of her mother and her family from way back when, and faked footage with actors pretending to be her relatives, and it all becomes pleasantly confusing. How everyone seems to remember different things about Diane and Michael takes on a very literal bent, but it works—in Polley’s own exploration of what was authentic and what wasn’t, she deliberately reproduces the same problem for us. It’s a move that only draws us further in, only makes us more engaged. It’s brilliant.

The flaw of “Stories We Tell,” however, is that Polley is trying so hard to share everyone else’s story and uncover the mechanics of how we form these narratives that she refuses to focus on herself, and that lack of selfishness cuts the film’s impact a bit. She’s always there, always filming, always interacting with her subjects, but where is Polley actually in the documentary? It’s hard to say. In rejecting the inclusion of her own opinions and reactions, Polley leaves the film without a kind of definitive ending; that may have been part of her point, to suggest that these stories just keep on going, but it seems weirdly impersonal for such an otherwise interior project. Polley says she is interested in how “the past is often ephemeral and difficult to pin down,” but even a bit of an insertion of her own present would have lifted “Stories We Tell” from goodness into greatness.

Enjoy reading this review? Check out our roundup of what other films are opening this week.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.

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