Movie Review: Stories We Tell (2013)
“Who fucking cares about our family?”
Joanna Polley says this with a smile at the beginning of “Stories We Tell,” Sarah Polley’s documentary about the history of her family, her mother, herself. Answer? We do. We particularly care about Joanna and her siblings. They’re fun to hang with. Joanna is beautiful with a twinkle in her eye, half-brother John Buchan has a more mischievous version of that twinkle, Mark is sweet and sensitive.
Who isn’t much fun? Who is often a silent and annoying presence in Sarah Polley’s doc?
One of the documentary’s central conceits is that we all have our stories, and they often differ, even when we’re talking about the same thing. We all have our perspectives and things get mangled in the telling. They get mangled by being processed through us. This is hardly news.
But the story of Sarah and her family is news—for most of us.
Remember the kids’ book “Are You My Mother?” That’s sort of what this is. The search for who the departed mother is (spiritually) becomes a search for who the father is (biologically).
The mother is Diane, a stage actress and free spirit, whom we first see in old black-and-white footage from, one assumes, a 1950s Canadian TV show. “Who, me?” she asks the camera, half self-conscious, half flirtatious. Yes, you.
She died in 1990, at age 55, when Sarah, her youngest, was 11. She had five kids by two men. Scratch that. Getting ahead of myself.
Her first husband, George Buchan, was the kind of man her parents wanted her to marry—stolid, good postwar job—but she found the life stultifying and they divorced. He got custody of the two kids because she’d had an affair. Apparently it was the first time in Canadian history that a mother hadn’t gotten custody of her own kids. This was 1967.
Was the affair with Michael Polley? The doc doesn’t say. Diane first saw him in a play, “The Caretaker,” and went backstage, and yadda yadda. They were both actors but otherwise opposites. She was excitable, he was calm. She liked people, he liked privacy. “Diane would be doing 10 things at one time,” Michael says. “I’d be doing half of one thing.”
Does Michael say this while reading from his memoir at the recording studio? Sarah has him do that. She makes this old man walk up three flights of stairs and makes him reread certain lines over and over. More: She shows how she makes him reread certain lines over and over. It’s an interesting dynamic—the director-child is father to the old man—but it doesn’t exactly show her in the best of lights. On purpose? Does she need certain lines repeated for us, for emphasis, or does she need her father to repeat certain lines for her, for satisfaction? Cut to: director in close-up, silent. Not telling.
Apparently Toronto, where they lived, is a bit like Seattle—full of cold and distant people—so it was a bit of a reprieve for Diane in the late 1970s when she got a gig performing in a play in Montreal. The title was ironic: “Oh Toronto.” Her marriage with Michael was also reprieved by the gig. He showed up, sparks flew. But she hadn’t been faithful to him there. Then she got pregnant. At 42, she considered an abortion but changed her mind. “Amazing, isn’t it?” Michael tells the off-camera director. “How close we were to you never existing?”
But who was the father? There were jokes, when Sarah was young, and Michael participated in them probably because he didn’t believe in them. “Who do you think your father is this week, Sarah?” they’d ask. In her early 30s, a famous actress herself now, she tries to find out. She asks Geoff, the lead of “Oh Toronto,” but he denies it. She asks Harry Gulkin, one of her mother’s friends at the time, who produced the award-winning film, “Lies My Father Told Me,” if he thought Geoff was her father. No, he says. Why? she asks. Because I’m your father, he says.
Sarah reenacts the scene of the revelation. She dramatizes it. She actually makes it undramatic. Maybe that’s necessary or maybe that’s just her. Then we get Harry’s version of Diane, and Harry’s story of his love affair with Diane, and Harry’s subsequent father-daughter relationship with Sarah. A paternity test is done, emails are read, relatives are met, gumlines are compared.
When the news reaches him, Michael is stunned—he raised Sarah by himself from age 11—but ultimately he takes it with a kind of sad equipoise. The kids, too. John says Mark was disappointed in their mother but in the doc he’s actually rather empathetic. He talks about what a scary scenario it is, having someone else’s kid and hiding that fact from the people you’re closest to. “Look at the mess she got into trying to look like everything was OK,” he says.
It’s such a great story everyone wants to tell it: Michael, Harry, the press. Sarah’s against this. She’s against all of it. Which is probably why she made this doc, which attempts to encompass all of these stories—Michael’s, Harry’s, her siblings'—but which she ultimately controls. “I can’t figure out why I’m exposing us all in this way,” she says. We can.
The ending is clogged with those points of view. Michael tells her the story should be funnier. “You see what a vicious director you are?” he says. Harry tells her the very idea of her documentary, encompassing all of these stories, is false. There has to be a singular point of view, he says. “The story with Diane is only mine to tell,” he says.
This echoes something he’d said earlier, for which I was grateful. People tend to treat love as the pinnacle of human existence—“to love another person is to see the face of God,” is how “Les Misérables” puts it—but I’ve always felt there’s a negative aspect that goes unspoken. Harry speaks it:
When you’re in love like that you become utterly selfish. Nothing that’s happening to anyone else matters at all or is a matter of any consideration. You just wind up sort of focused, intense, wanting to consume the object of your love, and nothing else exists.
“Stories We Tell” is delightful when the focus is on Diane, the mother. It is less so when the focus becomes Sarah, the daughter and documentarian. Maybe 10 minutes could have been excised from the end. Or maybe use these 10 minutes to give Sarah’s siblings, rather than Sarah, more screentime. They’re fun, Sarah less so. Which is itself fascinating. Sarah Polley has made a documentary in which she is the least interesting character. There’s something wonderfully Canadian about that.