Stories We Tell (2012, Sarah Polley)
Not long ago, a book came through the donation pile at work called Family Secrets: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You. It’s a sort of self-help volume about dealing with the apparently volumnious number of things the average extended family cannot comfortably discuss. I found myself a bit mystified by its vague quantification of “secrets” and its need to cure them, as though the elephant in the room is in fact a living, breathing creature who must be defeated through a series of M. Night Shyamalan-like rules. The evolution of the unsaid seemed to be too much an emotional conceit for a book that exhibited point-by-point instructions and detailed pep talks, a kind of rationalization that seems more alienating than comforting; and how much can a guy you’ve never met named John Bradshaw really know about your family? If it’s a universal truth that every family has these problems, isn’t it also a universal truth that each family’s experience of them is varied and disparate enough that some sort of generalized 12-step program can’t possibly help much?
Bradshaw’s weasel words and flair for what seemed like melodrama (or melodrama-enabling) was on my mind a lot when I saw Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, one of the most acclaimed films of its kind in the modern era, in New York this spring. It is a personal documentary, or what we’d probably term an essay film, about Polley’s discovery of a hole in her past and the DNA test that filled it. As an adult, she discovered that her perpetually downbeat and lovably inept dad was not her biological father, and that her mother, long dead of cancer, had evidently cavorted a bit during her years as a stage actress, resulting in a love child who’d grow up to be the famed actress and filmmaker now standing before us. The film reports all of the facts and intricacies of the event, the ramifications, the discovery of the affair and the identity of Polley’s real father. Both her dads — kindly, melancholic Michael Polley and Santa-like chatterbox Harry Gulkin — are interviewed for the film. Though it’s presented rather straightforwardly (de facto father narrates a big chunk of the story along with Polley, and she accompanies this with talking-head pieces and some candid moments with the family, as well as, well, other stuff), the tale has lyricism and sweep, for sure, sweep enough that seems to have seduced and stunned a lot of people.
I can’t say I can entirely share that enthusiasm — I wasn’t in love with the film. Granted, I did love certain moments in it. Mostly, I appreciated the little asides in interviews, especially with Polley’s siblings, about largely irrelevant matters that give some inkling of the personalities in play — stuff about acceptance, regret and garbage day. Polley gets halfway to greatness in her approach to the people in her life, and she certainly is polite, maybe a little too much so, in her self-doubt about whether this business is worth filming to begin with; in the end, that’s a nearly crippling zero-confidence vote. She captures the essence of those she speaks with, and even that of her sadly absent mother, but she clutters things up with outsiders (her mom’s acting friends, mostly) and is seemingly wary of letting any real sense of her own life come through the picture, even though she herself is its subject. Compared to most viewers, I was also less fond of the widely acclaimed central semi-secret gimmick (or closing joke) of shooting footage of actors and pretending it’s Super 8 film of Polley’s family only to reveal the truth near the end, which unfortunately calls to mind F for Fake, a film that your documentary does not want to have to hold its own against.
That’s a noble defeat, though, and the results are impressive enough in retrospect that it casts the film as a whole in a different light. More disappointing is that Stories We Tell frequently contains a lot of things I hate in “personal” documentaries, a lot of things I assumed the obviously gifted Polley would avoid. Like My Architect or Super Size Me, it’s too much about itself, including a seemingly endless sequence of tortuous speculation over what it’s really “about” (did we really need to hear the word “story”/”stories” that many times in the last half hour?), and its director’s interpretation of the world around her rather than any more vulnerable, less controlled aspect of her experience. Insightful though she is, this seems a guarded narrative that plays it safe by pretending that there are multiple narratives to every secret — when in fact, this capital-I “Idea” just serves as a distraction from investigating the wounds wrought about by discovering the buried truth of one’s own parentage. Polley says that the confusion of viewing the film is an approximation of the confusion she felt herself — but because she carefully conceals and glosses over that confusion, even if it’s “there when you look for it,” the effect is null.
It cannot be questioned, still, that Polley’s central act here is one of love: she makes plain that she loves both of her fathers and that her mother, whom she barely had time to know, remains an indelible presence in her life. It requires no intellectual deconstruction to determine that she adores her four siblings and retains a remarkable rapport with them, and that she neither judges Michael Polley for his perceived neglect of her mother, Diane Elizabeth, nor Elizabeth’s own infidelity. She never even implies that her parents’ marriage was anything but ultimately successful, if tragic. This is all life, these are all things that happen. That, in a sense, is a factor that leads Stories We Tell to come across as an underwhelming film. In a sense, it seems to be telling a watered-down version of the truth, in part because it incorporates every viewpoint it can find. Every adoption or secret parentage story is compelling. My mother’s is, I think, one of the most remarkable I have heard and embodies a great deal that makes it unique, a mythology bound to me by blood replete with house explosions, rich men and piano lessons. It’s a part of me just as this is a part of Sarah Polley. What makes me different from Sarah Polley? Talent, of course. And what makes this story different from mine? What makes it unique to the point that it can and must and yearns to be told to legions of moviegoers?
That would be Polley herself, a once wunderkind actress who’s proven herself as an adult to be a genuinely remarkable emerging talent, whose star shone brightly but who took control over her career and chose how she would live in the public eye, ultimately chose to become a filmmaker, ultimately took the reins of her destiny as her mother never could. But Polley at times seems absent from her own film, even when the camera sits squarely on her face. It’s briefly mentioned that Gulkin took note of and delighted in news clippings about his secret daughter over the years, and a heartbreaking yet slightly humorous passage studies her reaction to a grave bit of news on the set of Mr. Nobody, but her own notoriety is otherwise never explored. For me, this is a missed opportunity, and only one facet of Polley’s own apparently deliberate distance from the center of her own film, a maneuver I find strange given that Polley herself is in every sense the reason we care about and come to hear this story.
But Stories We Tell does embody some incredibly rich detail and cinematic sleight of hand that lift it above most of its kind, and its central narrative really does give you pause to think about the years and sweep and changes in your own life. When it comes down to it, the film seems to see not sorrow in who has fallen and what secrets are now lost forever, but how many survive and how permanent the past and its lessons can finally seem; indeed, how the passing years have rendered it more possible to find our own meanings in life, like Polley’s parents wanted to and never really could. I simply wish the film were as moving as some of the idle thoughts it inspires. Like Bradshaw’s book, it holds onto too many of its own secrets.