The story goes that acclaimed filmmaker Sarah Polley grew up under firm belief that she was, if somewhat different looking than her loving siblings, as much a biological member of the family as any of them. Her family’s nagging jokes about her appearance did little to denounce their commitment to little Sarah as the child of Michael and Diane Polley. Little did they know that her real father was Harry Gulkin, a theater producer whom her mother had had an affair with before passing of cancer while Sarah was still young herself, forever sealing the secret of her birth. The story goes this way, but it also branches outward to tackle the heart of cinema, the construct of a documentary, the messy lies and half-truths of a family less sure of itself than we are, and even the nature of subjectivity as the only sure truth in the plural choruses that are the stories we tell.
If F for Fake is the divining rod for this sort of postmodern anti-documentary, Stories We Tell is at is best when it is following in its predecessors footsteps. Obviously, Polley’s style is considerably different from the grand showman that was Orson Welles, and her film leans less heavily on her status as ringleader. It’s also something less of a bravura showpiece of filmmaking craft, less willing to benefit from directorial sleight of hand, but it’s in their for those who look. Polley’s thoughtful examination of inherent subjectivity is personal in the best sense of the word, pursuing interviews with family and friends, leaving in idiosyncrasies that don’t match up, and generally playing around with their stories through tacit, low-key submissions of falsity and reflections on the failures of her own goal to truly divine the truth of her parentage. She knows she can never truly discover her history as it existed and as it was true, for it was always shot-through with the way in which her relatives informed her of it in the first place. The truth itself is less meaningful than the search for the truth. Whatever Polley gets from her relatives and old friends is “true” in that it affects her. Her film creates a truth even as it is lying, reminding that truth is less a statement of fact than an ex-post-facto reorganization of thoughts that construct life and find their own truth. It is a work of communal, post-structuralist filmmaking that questions the idea of a personal statement in the film world – indeed it throws the entire idea of auteur theory into disarray, and thus is about as far from Welles as humanly possible – even as it is a devoutly personal work and an attempt to reconcile Polley’s present and past selves.
The complications even extend so far as the film itself, with Polley gamely cutting through her faux-objectivity from time to time. Most notably, the home videos of her past lives were, as often as not, recreations themselves, subjective artist’s interpretations shot through with meta-narrative and decades of history at her fingertips. It’s a bold gesture, and it proves that Polley has studied her Welles well. Even better, she manages Welles’ warmth ably, albeit of a more earthen variety. She dials down the naughtier tendencies of the ever-controlling, even monomaniacal auteur (admittedly the same controlling air that made him a great, perverse fit for the darker undercurrents of a documentary about the inherent lie of documentaries and cinema more generally), leaving an unfiltered humanizing warmth and glow that captures the avuncular spirit of camaraderie of telling stories with friends. She isn’t quite able to sell the “aha, I’ve fooled you and I’m damn proud to do it any day of the week” genius of Welles, nor to seem as genuinely and heartily pleased with herself as Welles always was, but she doesn’t want to. Her take is more that of relief at having closed a book or finished a chapter. And she’s earned it, even if she slowly opens up about her awareness that the book always continues on. And that it hides more than it reveals.
Of course, as noble as her film is, that doesn’t mean it’s as refreshingly cinematic as it ought to be. It’s a joyous film, but a touch passive, and personal in a way that can sometimes be a bit on the distant side. Stories is a wonderful achievement, but only Welles maintained the unrelentingly cinematic bluster of exploring film as an art form throughout, dazzling us with visual tricks and playing with the celluloid like it was his god given gift as an all-time master. There was always a sense that he was in command, and that is exactly what you’d want out of a filmic self-critique about the lie that was his control, and about how his control could account for nothing but itself. There was a realization that, filmically, he was always behind the screen playing with his us, reminding us that it was his vision and no truth we were watching.
Polley plays things a little more objectively, which distracts a touch from her mission. Or, perhaps more accurately, it reveals a greater truth about her mission, that it is not her film about her subjectivity and the subjectivity around her but a genuine quest to arrive at a more objective truth surrounding her life. This is well and good, but it isn’t quite as subversive as a work fully indebted to its own subjectivity. We can parse out various fronts of subjectivity in the way she casually reconstructs her identity or pokes through her interviewees, but she never goes all the way down the rabbit hole. It is an altogether fascinating passenger experience for us, but it changes the nature of the piece from “documentary that challenges the form of documentaries in inventive new ways” to “neat little family drama”. What a neat little family drama it turns out to be, but I would defy anyone to argue that this is more compelling cinema than the other option, or that it has more to say about the art form.
Her critique of objectivity is safer than the one Welles pursued; his was an immanent shot to the heart of the documentary form, while hers is a slighter, more winking rib with a lighter touch. It’s natural and entirely reasonable that Polley would want a specific, objective answer at the end of her quest, but that doesn’t mean her film has to nail things down so tightly and leave so little room for ambiguity. She seems a little too keen on explicitly deciding what is a lie and what is truth, and this false dichotomy is decidedly less compelling than fundamentally questioning the entire prospect of those two words from the core up.
All things considered though, Stories We Tell is never less than a sterling memory piece lying in wait, an honest attempt to rethink the way that film can connect with and explore memory in visual terms. Sure, compared to the wonderfully contorted, confused, anxious question of a film it could have been, with answers and questions dangling around one another and complicating each other with a lack of assurance that brought the core of filmic language and Polley’s quest into question, it lacks a certain subversive mastery. But Polley’s personal journey is undeniably life-changing, and watching a gifted filmmaker experience their life laid out in front of them is never less than compelling stuff. Half fair work of genius and half “never less than compelling” documentary family drama is, admittedly, not a masterpiece, but Polley is plainly invested in this project, and when Polley is invested in something, she does not disappoint. As a personal essay in film form, Stories We Tell is a mild case of dynamite, but dynamite nonetheless.