Sarah Polley's personal "documentary" suffers from one additional emotional beat too many. Otherwise, it's mesmerizing.
We all have our Oprah moments, memories of childhood upheaval or dysfunction that plague us beyond our ever advancing maturity. For some, it's abuse. For others, it's abandonment. In my case (true confessions time) it was discovering that Grandpa Johnson, the man who was my mother's biological father, was not dead. You see, we all grew up thinking we knew the story of my mom's side of the family. Grandma Ridgeway had married Mr. Johnson, had two children (the other being my wonderful Aunt Sarah) and then he died. We knew it. Mom knew it. Aunt Sarah knew it. After the war, my Grandmother married Sgt. Ridgeway and they had a son, Gary. "Sarge", as he liked to be called, had an older boy named Ike as well.
Now, this was the family myth, the dead biological grandfather. Oddly enough, there were actually two of them. On my dad's side, Grandpa Gibron was a raging drunk who, while stumbling home one night from the local tavern, tripped over the railroad tracks, hit his head on one of the metal beams, and died instantly. All of this happened before I was born, while my father was a baby. So on the one side I had the dead alcoholic and on the other I had the dead deadbeat... except, that wasn't true. Apparently, Grandma Ridgeway hated her ex so much that, after he left, she made up a story about his death. She told it to her kids and they believed her. They told it to us and so did we. Then one night while I was in college, my mother called to break the news. She had been contacted by Mr. Johnson, and once she confronted her own parent about the details, his story proved to be true.
Something similar happened to actress/writer/director Sarah Polley (of Away from Her and Take This Waltz fame). Her mother Diane died of cancer in 1999, and when she did, she left behind one nagging question that few in the family could resolve: who really was Sarah's biological father? Throughout most of her early life, the accomplished filmmaker thought it was Michael Polley, a one-time actor who had captured her mother's eye and had been his spouse until the time of her death. But with the rest of the family laughing about the lack of a resemblance, and tongues still wagging over a tryst during a theatrical run in Toronto, Polley set out to find out once and for all. Using an unusual artistic approach (the merging of actual home movies with "recreations" from the appropriate time period, with actors taking the place of the participants), Stories We Tell was born.
For a while, we are mesmerized by what Polley accomplishes. She gets her entire family - father, brothers and sisters, half-siblings from her mom's first marriage, and various friends, well wishers, and confidants - to confess what they know and how they came about said knowledge. In the interim, they paint of portrait of a free spirited woman who was never quite sure what she wanted. Attracted to the limelight like a moth to the flame, she fell for Michael even though her first attempt at matrimony imploded. She confused the character her future husband played onstage for the man he would be, and when his quieter, more introspective side started to emerge, Diane bailed. Not physically, but spiritually. The trip to Toronto re-inspired her, as did an affair which resulted in Sarah. In one of the film's most shocking moments, a decision over abortion almost cost us this gifted artist's cinematic voice.
Then Diane gets cancer, dies and Stories We Tell becomes an indirect detective yarn. Polley, aware of the whispers, decided to find out the truth. She followed up aging leads, confronts the innocent, and discovers something familiar about film producer Harry Gulkin. Without giving much away, the second act centers on proving who Sarah's father really is, dealing with the blowback caused to her own relatives, and connecting with someone she was/is familiar with, but not necessarily knowing how to treat now that they are considered kin. It's very touch and go, the kids not wanting to disrespect their mother's memory but at the same time unsure of how to approach her obvious indiscretion. Then Michael speaks up, and in one sentence -- "I figured the affair was okay since I obviously wasn't giving (my wife) what she wanted" -- and the scales fall.
Indeed, Stories We Tell is more about the people involved than the circumstances they must deal with. We learn more about Michael, his relationship with Diane and his kids in that single sentiment than a hour of halted handwringing. There are also esoteric considerations that don't make a lot of sense. Harry likes to argue that Polley will never uncover "the truth," just a bunch of individual interpretations of same, and his reluctance to appear in the film countermands an original desire to break the story to the press. Similarly, the various brothers and sisters come across as slightly irritated that Polley would want to include them, almost as if they are jealous of the fact that their history is the normal broken home mythology while their award winning sibling has the Hollywood backstory.
And then there is the structure. Once the main mysteries are revealed (unhappy first marriage, extramarital affair, biological parentage), Polley takes everything an extra beat too far. She keeps pressing, as if her Oprah moment means something more significant. From a personal perspective, my whole "grandfather" issue has become a casual conversation anecdote. I don't use it to armchair psychoanalyze my late mother and/or grandmother, don't look to it as anything more than a product of its times and how small town Southern people dealt with moral maelstroms like divorce. But here, Polley seems to think that being a bastard earns her a kind of aesthetic credential that surpasses the facts. While we love hearing more, it's not necessary and surely not needed.
Yet Stories We Tell survives the excess to remain a powerful individualized overview. What Polley exposes is that age old maxim that truth is stranger than fiction and that everyone has a story worth telling. In this case, hers becomes far more high profile because we are dealing with celebrity, no matter how slight. She may not be a true household name, but Polley has been in films as diverse as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Dawn of the Dead, and Splice. You'd figure that with anyone known, the tabloids would have ratted out the reality long ago. As with many family secrets, however, Polley's tale had to be tweezed, carefully extracted from decades of denial. Stories We Tell is the wound finally closed and completely healed. It may leave a scar, but then again, we all have them.