I’m sure most of us can recall a time when we were reminded, “No family is perfect.” This being the case, it’s then not a surprise that each family has its own package of stories too old and familiar to be considered compelling for an outside party. Sarah Polley brilliantly turns this idea on its head in the narrative of Stories We Tell using the stories right at the tips of her fingers to create a memorable cinematic experience.
Not only does Stories give a voice to everyone involved in the story it tells, but to every angle involved as well. For instance, the reliability of memory, the boundaries of truth, the great impact one’s decisions can have on others (direct and indirect), the various holes of communication, and so on. Nakedly examining these often blurry areas, Polley creates an honest portrait of the nature of family stories.
This is shrewdly done via an array of filming techniques, not the least of which is the story being dictated partially by a narrator who is also one of the film’s main characters. His aged voice speaking over reinvented footage of past events communicates the story’s essential distance, while the scenes of recording narration in the studio bring an intimacy to its telling.
Alternately, Polley uses video of the characters speaking candidly on what’s happened, all the while addressing an unclear “you” which slowly reveals its meaning through the film’s progress but in the meantime functions to address the audience in the first person. These multiple formats–fictional representation as well as the retelling by its participants–create a multilayered sense of the events, compounding involvement in its progress.
Anyone who’s ever earnestly written down or told a personal story knows that the effort causes a re-experience of events. Polley utilizes this idea to reenact the mysterious past as her characters wade through half-remembered details of their shared history. Ultimately, however sincere their efforts to piece together an agreement on what happened, the best the family can collectively create is a confused knowledge of one family member and all the chaos she created. Still, it’s great fun to vicariously experience their unusual background, and a testament to the fact that we all really do have great stories to tell. Congratulations to Polley, who has perhaps unknowingly invented a new film sub-genre for others to explore.