Review: Be Thankful Sarah Polley Shares ‘Stories We Tell’

It’s hard to think of a public figure that I’ve felt closer to than Sarah Polley and I’m not even from her native Canada where she is truly beloved. As an actress, Polley was once a permanent resident in my household every week as I was when “Avonlea” ran on the Disney Channel and like a childhood friend you don’t see quite enough, she checks in from time to time, leaving just enough evidence with every intimate performance to lend credence to a narrative that’s comforting even if it certainly isn’t true of the actual person.

While Polley’s public persona is one of the few narratives that isn’t directly picked apart by Polley’s remarkable third film “Stories We Tell,” it creates a fascinating context around what’s a deeply personal story for Polley, one that you may have heard is best left unspoiled in advance. However, the revelation that Polley shares about her family with the audience isn’t nearly as surprising as the ways in which she’s able to process it as a filmmaker, presenting a loving portrait of her parents as told by their children whose occasionally fuzzy recollections and emotionally shaded memories become as much fact in what they share as the things they can all agree upon definitively.

What emerges is an unusually well-rounded look inside the marriage of Michael Polley and Diane MacMillan, two actors who grew apart after twelve years of matrimony. Various theories fly between the siblings on why it didn’t work out, frankly speaking about everything from their parents’ different personalities to what they knew about their sexual preferences to the daughters even reflecting on their own trouble with first marriages. With Diane since passed away from cancer, only Michael is around to give a first-person perspective and is asked to do far more by Sarah, who prods him into doing the film’s narration with the grand, mellifluous voice of a British-born actor.

That proves to be a seemingly benign if prescient introduction to what kind of film “Stories We Tell” is going to be, with Polley the director flashing a devilish grin as she pipes into the recording booth to tell her father, “We’ve told you it’s a documentary, but it’s actually an interrogation process.” It’s a warning that goes double for the audience as Polley brings us so deeply into her family history with home movies and unguarded interviews that little details begin to accumulate that suggest all is not what it appears to be on the surface.

Although that would seem to prime “Stories We Tell” for some major gotcha moments, any that occur are gracefully slipped in because Polley isn’t interested in fooling people. Instead, she’s in search of we each accept as truth, the place where the abstract emotions inform the hard reality in front of us to form our beliefs. Even without that layer, the central story of Michael and Diane is extraordinarily involving on its own as Polley invests so much in demonstrating what rich lives they led, freeing up her relatives and family friends to tell anecdotes as if they were sitting across from one another over dinner and share private details as if they were sharing a smoke with someone close outside. Yet it becomes truly profound when Polley’s investigation into a family secret chronicles how the people most affected by it come to accept it on their own terms.

As a person who’s been around the movie business all her life, Polley’s likely had more time than most to consider the interplay between fact and fiction and now she has the skill to convey it a way that’s simple and true, even when the reality shouldn’t lend itself to such eloquence. “Stories We Tell” unmistakably originates from a singular vision, but also serves as a testament to what happens when individual perspectives blend into one, creating something far greater than the sum of its parts – in this case, a truly special film. 

“Stories We Tell” is now in theaters.

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