Sunday, September 8, 2013

Sarah Polley delivers another knockout film with Stories We Tell

"Who would want to hear about our family"?  It's a question that Sarah Polley's sister asks at the beginning of Stories We Tell, Polley's attempt to make sense of certain events of her family's past in documentary form.  It's a question one might ask themselves when reading a one-line description of the premise, but the film manages to confirm the old adage that sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.

In some ways, the main character of the film is a woman who doesn't even technically appear in it, Sarah's mother Diane.  She died of cancer when Sarah was very young, and Sarah brings together various friends and family from her mother's life to offer their interpretations of who she was as a person.  But naturally, all of these various impressions don't neatly fit together, and the edges that bump together don't create a fluid narrative.  Overall, Diane was a woman who was vibrant, complicated, and full of life on the outside, but it's in the telling of her guarded interior where things start to blur.  Like all of Sarah Polley's films, Stories We Tell is interested in the complexities of memory.  Our recollections are not something we can embalm, and because there's no way to preserve them, they have a habit of fracturing and dissolving.  The past is like a glass wall -- as much as it appears that we can extend our hands and grasp it, we eventually hit a barrier.  In an effort to reach back into the past, Polley's family faces all of the pain and regret that comes with it, as old wounds get reopened and new ones form.

If it sounds like I'm being a little light on plot, it's because that's a deliberate decision on my part, as there are some progressions in the story that are best experienced without prior knowledge.  For being so tiny and intimate, the film also spins quite a yarn, one that you'll want to keep tugging at as much Polley does.  The whole thing almost feels like a story that's constructing itself as it goes along, much like life does.  Away From Her and Take This Waltz, Polley's first two films, were full of lovely lines of dialogue, and Stories We Tell finds its beauty in the form of re-read emails and letters that are just as lyrical as anything that could be scripted.  Sarah's family has many members and they're all very articulate, offering thoughtful insights on the events they're recounting and the human condition in general.  There's some tension that comes from these people being interviewed about delicate subjects by their own family member, but it also generates some very raw moments, and countless scenes have an overwhelming emotional power.

I love documentaries that implicate the documentarian, and this film doesn't just involve Sarah, she's tangled right up in the middle of it.  At a certain point, she has to ask herself why she's making this film that exposes the intimate details of her family's history.  As much as the bending of stories can be for entertainment purposes, it can also be an act of avoidance.  Though the film may be her way of exploring difficult aspects of her life without directly confronting them, it also draws some thoughtful conclusions on the importance of storytelling.  There's a crucial scene near the end where one of Polley's subjects questions the validity of including so many differing perspectives, even ones with only a tangential relationship to the story.  But in his skepticism of the necessity of the film, he's only emphasizing it.  That's what stories are.  They reverberate and affect those in concentric circles far removed from the epicenter.  They shift, reform, and gain new life over and over again.  They're not a facsimile of events, but a translation of them, the closest we can ever come to getting back to the true moment.

Is is time for Sarah Polley to start entering the conversation of best directors working right now?  Away From Her was an astonishing debut, and while Take This Waltz didn't quite hit those same heights, it was still very good.  Now with this one, which is number 1 on my ever-changing list of favorite films this year, that's two masterful films and another great one before the age of 35.  Going by that trajectory, she should be considered a wunderkind in the same vein as Paul Thomas Anderson.  Her films are special because of the way they navigate fraught emotional terrain, and although Stories We Tell is about one family, its themes of loss and the ephemeral nature of memory can resonate with anyone who has a beating heart and firing synapses.

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