The key line that explains what's going on in Stories We Tell is said at one point by one of the "storytellers" in Sarah Polley's third feature: "when you're in the middle of a story, it isn't a story at all". It's only afterwards that you feel the need to make sense of it by organising and smoothing it out. But what if that isn't the whole story? What if behind that story we organize there's another, more elusive, more jagged? And what if the truth is somewhere else entirely, hiding in between all those stories? Ms. Polley, a generally intelligent actress with a taste for left turns and challenging roles, has extended her refusal of conventions into her own directing projects. But Stories We Tell is the most personal, intriguing and accomplished of the three films, picking up on her own, and her parents', life stories as a case study.

     At the centre of the film is Ms. Polley's own identity as the youngest of three siblings born to English father Michael, a former actor who became company man to support the family, and Canadian mother Diane, who worked as an actress and casting director and died of cancer while Sarah was still young. An old family jest about her lack of likeness with her father Michael turns out to be a "clue" that led to a revelation many years later, and the film is the tale of Ms. Polley's discovery of her real lineage, as well as a confrontation of the different takes on truth as admitted by her family and its circle of friends in on-camera interviews intercut with super-8 home movies. The apparent documentary aspect of the search gives way to a sort of refracting mirror, where the different versions of the tale cannot be taken at face value; the process of sorting through them is made visible in the film itself, as we begin doubting what we are seeing, asking how much of it is actual, reenactment or fiction; all of it underlining the notion of storytelling as tales we weave, as much to ourselves as to others, in order to make sense of things, out of elements of truth and wish-fulfillment.

     As a director, Stories We Tell confirms Ms. Polley continues to have issues of tempo and rhythm, taking longer than she should to set up her pieces (even when it ends up underlining the payoff) and occasionally getting lost in redundancies or underselling her project. And, admittedly, there is always a sense that, despite the director's emotional commitment to the project, it may be a more enticing object theoretically and conceptually than as a film. But the questions it asks, and the way she asks them, make Stories We Tell as fascinating as it is unusual, and its flaws are part of its fascination.

Cast: Rebecca Jenkins, Peter Evans, Alex Hatz
Director: Sarah Polley
Screenwriters: Ms. Polley, with narration written by Michael Polley
Cinematographer: Iris Ng  (colour)
Designer: Lea Carlson
Costumes: Sarah Armstrong
Editor: Michael Munn
Producer: Anita Lee  (National Film Board of Canada)
Canada, 2012, 108 minutes

Screened: distributor advance screener DVD, Lisbon, November 10th 2013


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