The sold-out screening of Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell at this year's Nashville Film Festival was a nearly perfect demonstration of the film's power. After the first few minutes, people sat completely engrossed. No fidgeting with electronic devices. No texting with the outside world as a show of passive-aggressive diffidence. Everyone just got drawn in.
You might think a story this rooted in the specifics of one family — that of Polley, the Canadian child actor turned remarkable lead (The Sweet Hereafter, the Dawn of the Dead remake) and Oscar-nominated screenwriter/director (Away From Her) — might not be captivating for general audiences. But there is something universal about the issues her one-of-a-kind film explores. A marriage in crisis, parental concern, a child's need to figure out the who and why of their parents — these are questions and situations that fascinate everyone. Just look at any talk show.
Or better yet, look at Polley's film, an absorbing and multi-layered hybrid of documentary and fictional storytelling techniques. Polley's approach is not to amp up drama, but to dig into the foundations of family secrets. Stories We Tell has the visceral impact and relatable drama of reality TV, but it elevates its discourse by being about a big family of Canadian intellectuals, which makes all the blessed difference in the world.
Family ties and bonds are weird — a lot of times you just have to figure them out as you go along. For Polley, that process was more complicated than most. Her mother, Diane Elizabeth, an actress and free spirit who died during Polley's youth, was a woman of many secrets. In the process of trying to figure out exactly who Diane was, Polley started to talk to her siblings, and the friends of her parents. And a family secret started to coalesce: Diane, while in Montreal performing in a play, may have had an affair — with a major lasting outcome.
It can knock you for a loop, finding out that the story behind your birth is a genre — though better a mystery than a tragedy or a sci-fi morality tale. So Polley starts filming. By talking to everyone (even those only tangentially involved with Diane in Montreal) and putting all their remembrances side by side — even when they're uncomfortable or contradictory — she creates an interesting sort of democracy. It isn't about trying to establish what definitively and really happened, because memory isn't fixed. The past instead becomes a kind of cubist object seen from every side and vantage point at once.
We trust recording devices to keep an absolute record of things for us. But with the varying stories Polley's interviews amass, moments years in the past take on new possibilities. It's a retroactive multiverse theory, and completely captivating. "Overly intellectual navel-gazing," some have called the movie, but Stories We Tell feels more like an exorcism — a proper Canadian exorcism, to be sure, where issues are reasonably discussed and plans are thoughtfully organized, but an exorcism nonetheless. Respect is due all the involved parties for not stopping with a simple mystery to be solved, but for discussing the why. What does it say about the state of the world today that the rational, reasoned debate Polley captures seems so refreshing — and so rare?
To be able to take your family history, with all its intersecting, messy vertices, and express it in a linear fashion onscreen is a dream of all cinephiles. That Polley herself has been such an enduring personality in both film and television — she found the cursed doll in the very first episode of Friday the 13th: the Series, charmed all of North America with Road to Avonlea, and played Beverly Cleary's immortal Ramona Quimby — invests the viewer in her quest far beyond the usual motivating factors like human empathy, voyeurism and the need to solve mysteries. Polley made an international breakthrough as the linchpin in one of Atom Egoyan's most intriguing cinematic puzzleboxes; it's somehow cosmically fitting that as director, she finds her way through the endless tangles of what family even means. We're with her, and her family, every step of the way.
This measured, moving, and ultimately inspiring gaze into the ripples that shape who we are culminates in a grand final gesture — a pivot that manages to provide several different kinds of catharsis with simply one line. Stories We Tell is the best film 2013 has yet brought to moviegoers. See it with someone you love, someone you truly want to know — or someone you may think you know better than you do.
A note: If you plan to see the movie — you should — try to avoid a lot of the information available about it on the Internet. This isn't a big-budget blockbuster full of shocking twists, but it's much more interesting to uncover the movie's mysteries as they're revealed. They're still used for catharsis, but the film asks us to process why revelations (these specifically, and as a concept in general) make such an impact on us as an audience.