Deploying Bon Iver’s Skinny Love from the start, Stories We Tell provokes somber reserve. Like the Bon Iver track, Sarah Polley’s film possesses an airy and dreamlike quality that dwells on one’s penchant for nostalgia. But Stories We Tell aspires and achieves grander thematic intent than merely inspiring wistful reflections on adolescence. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a family album, where a relic of the past is preserved as a means of gathering an audience together to view its contents. Stories We Tell initially may operate as a Rashomon deconstruction on the flexibility of memory and perception, but it delves into the fabric that binds a marriage and family together.
A personal and revealing picture, Polley’s openness to explore her family history produces something gelatinous and almost formless. Scenes involving Polley’s father reading from his memoir serve to provide some semblance of a framework, but ultimately, Stories We Tell succeeds through its provocations and statements on the human spirit. Fleeting images of familial gatherings succeed in bridging the gap between the personal and universal, therein making Stories We Tell the sort of documentary that demands the audience to invest a measure of their own familial history to derive meaning from the personal vantage point that Polley provides.
While Stories We Tell does adhere to a narrative flow (surprisingly adopting a clear, three-act structure), the film’s centerpiece interview serves to underscore the problematic design of telling a story from multiple vantage points. The unreliability of one’s memory has been dissected a multitude of times in film though Stories We Tell is the only picture I can recall to actually contemplate the artistic merits of perspective itself. With various interview segments that deconstruct the same moment in Polley’s family history, Stories We Tell acknowledges its piling contradictions and misinterpretations. Are the experiences of one of greater artistic value than another? Does the inclusion of various perspectives truly enhance one’s understanding of an event or does the event become blurred?
Polley’s films have all centered on the problematic design of marriage. The generational gap between Away from Her and Take this Waltz outline what may initially be construed as a fairly dismissive and critical perspective on marriage, with certain revealing aspects of Stories We Tell feeding into this perspective. Stories We Tell fits somewhere in the middle, witnessing a marriage take shape in both life and death. On a formal level, it’s Polley’s most ambitious effort. Striking Super-8 reenactments coalesce with her archival footage to inspire an uninterrupted sense of intimacy. But thematically speaking, Stories We Tell falls right in line with her previous works, concluding a trilogy on the passionate discourse of family and marriage.