I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a documentary quite like Stories We Tell. It’s a remarkably personal, intimate, and – at times – embarrassing tale about director Sarah Polley’s mother, Diane. But the story is told by Ms. Polley using interviews, narration, family films, and re-enactments. She, herself, does little speaking, allowing her family, friends, and those who knew her mother to do most of the talking. Yet, the film is definitely her vision and personal statement about her mother, truth, and the ways in which people remember their lives and those they love. It’s honest, empathetic, and beautiful.
The story begins with a character study of Diane, Ms. Polley’s vivacious, beautiful mother. She was a woman of many interests and occupations. We learn how she met Michael, her second husband, and the life they built together. Along the way, we see how Diane’s need for excitement and passion took her away from the family and into the arms of Harry Gulkin, a notable movie producer in Montreal. Eventually, Sarah comes to discover her own origins, and this leads to a sequence about the nature of secrets.
The greatest strength of Stories We Tell is in the universal themes it touches on – our human need for connection and the understanding of our origins, of the ways family personalities are shaped by the individual members, and of how we take ownership of our memories as if they do not belong to anyone else. In the story of the Polley family, I found myself reflecting on my own family history and wanted to know more. While Ms. Polley herself acknowledges how embarrassing this project seemed at times, her commitment to honesty – even through home movie reenactments – is an inspiration in how we should process the hardest truths life can deal us.