Every family has secrets. Hidden grudges, whispered revelations; dysfunction and deception are universal. Sarah Polley, the Canadian child actress prodigy who, at the ripe old age of 34, has already segued into an accomplished second career behind the camera with the startlingly mature marital-distress dramas Away From Her and Take This Waltz, now tries to tackle the trickiest, most confounding marriage she can find: her parents.
Diane Polley was an exuberant stage actress often seen here mugging for a Super-8 home movie camera on so many occasions that you’ll begin to wonder if the family ever allowed a stray moment to remain undocumented. Diane died of cancer when Sarah was just 11, leaving this youngest daughter to be raised by Michael Polley, a slightly stodgy, under-achieving sometime-actor and would-be author, who seems to carry the invisible weight on his shoulders of knowing full well he’s been a disappointment to pretty much everybody—but hell, it was the best he could do.
Sarah Polley gathers up her older sisters Susy and Joanna, as well as big brothers John and Mark, for story time, inviting each to take a turn before the camera telling what they know of Diane and Michael’s courtship. Dad is given two separate spotlights. The first finds him in a professional recording studio, reading from his own flowery hand-written account of the relationship. The second is a shade darker, grilled by his director-daughter at a cozy kitchen table with a seemingly endless supply of cigarettes. (As far as interviewers go, Torquemada might say that Sarah Polley pushes a little too hard sometimes.)
It’s all cordial enough in the early going. There’s something really quite moving about Polley’s determination to understand more about the mother she never really got a chance to know by badgering her family for as much as they can remember. But as the interviews continue, we keep returning to a common theme, one which, in fact, became a running joke amongst the family over time: Sarah doesn’t look anything like her dad.
That bright red hair is something of an anomaly in the Polley genealogy, and as it happens, the time-frame of Sarah’s conception occurred when Diane was out of town performing on the road with a theater troupe in another part of Canada altogether. Sure, Michael came to visit for one hot weekend, so technically anything is possible, but ...
What follows is an extended, gender-swapped riff on the old children’s book Are You My Mother? with Sarah turning detective and tracking down veterans of the 1970s’ Great White North theater scene and getting a whole lot of contradictory information, leaping to false assumptions that eventually build up to one bombshell of a revelation.
Here is where Stories We Tell jumps the shark. So far, the movie has pulled off an elegant job of exposing the way we need to order life’s events in our minds, forcing them to conform to tidy narrative structures, even if that means refusing to acknowledge the obvious. Polley pitting her father Michael’s written saga of the relationship against his frank kitchen table talk is a wonderfully revealing device. But the movie falls apart when this subtext becomes the actual text.
There’s a (not very) good half-hour or so of Stories We Tell during which the film stops dead in its tracks so every on-camera participant can muse, at not inconsiderable length, about what exactly they are trying to say here about the role storytelling plays in our lives. Polley goes from directing a movie to defending her dissertation. We lose track of the empathy that’s been built up for Diane’s struggle with secrets and broken dreams, settling down (and for) a husband who just wasn’t able to give her what she needed. All this emotion is scrapped for inert meta-psychobabble before the film rips yet another rug out from under us regarding those old home movies. What began as a searching personal journey ends as narcissistic family therapy masturbation.
Stay through the closing credits, and Stories We Tell ends on one hell of a punchline.