Nature, nurture and the manner in which their influence upon our lives inspires common threads in the telling of tales that are in turn relayed, processed and synthesized by what we think we see and what we want to see are the ingredients that make up Sarah Polley’s latest work as a director.
Her Oscar-nominated Away from Her was a well-crafted dramatic plunge into the effect of Alzheimer’s upon a married couple. Take this Waltz blasted a few light years forward, delivering a film that’s on one hand a wonky-plonky romantic comedy and on the other, a sad, devastating portrait of love gone awry, and all the while being perhaps one of the most progressive films about female passion and sexuality made in a modern, contemporary North American (though specifically Canadian) context.
Stories We Tell is something altogether different and, in fact, roots Polley ever so firmly in contemporary cinema history as someone who has generated a bona fide masterpiece. It is first and foremost a story of family – not just a family, or for that matter any family, but rather a mad, warm, brilliant, passionate family who expose their lives in the kind of raw no-guts-no-glory manner that only film can allow. Most importantly, the lives exposed are as individual as they are universal and ultimately it’s a film about all of us. It is a documentary with a compelling narrative arc, yet one that is as mysterious and provocative and profoundly moving as you’re likely to see.
Love permeates the entire film – the kind of consuming love that we’ve all felt at one point or another. We experience love within the context of relationships most of us are familiar with: a husband and wife, a mother and child, brothers and sisters (half and full), family and friends, and yes, ‘illicit love’ (at least within a specific context in a much different time and place). Mostly though, Stories We Tell expresses a love that goes even beyond our recognisable experiences of love and runs a gamut of emotions.
The film is often funny, to be sure. It is, after all, a film by Sarah Polley and is infused with her near-trademark sense of perverse, skewed, borderline darkly comedic, but ultimately amiable sense of humour. The great American author of Armenian heritage William Saroyan titled his episodic novel (and Oscar-nominated screen story) The Human Comedy, something that coursed through his entire canon and indeed is the best way to describe Polley’s approach to telling stories on film. She exposes truth and emotion, and all the while is not willing to abandon dollops of sentimental touches – the sort we can find ourselves relating to in life itself.
There is a unique sense of warmth that permeates Stories We Tell, and by so employing it, Polley doesn’t merely tug at our emotions: she slices them open, exposing raw nerve endings that would be far too painful if they were not tempered with an overall aura of unconditional love, not unlike that described by those who have survived a near-death experience. The emotions and deep feelings of love in Polley’s documentary are so enveloping, I personally have to admit to being reduced to a quivering, blubbering bowl of jelly each time I saw the film.
Four screenings later and her movie continues to move me unconditionally – on an aesthetic level, to be sure (her astonishing blend of interviews, archival footage and dramatic recreations so real that they all blend together seamlessly), but mostly on a deeply personal and emotional level.
At the heart of the film is a courageous, vibrant woman no longer with us. Polley guides us through this woman’s influence upon all those she touched. Throughout much of the film, one is reminded of Clarence Oddbody’s great line in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life: ‘Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?’ I try to imagine the lives of everyone Polley introduces us to and how if, like in the Capra film, this vibrant, almost saint-like woman had not been born. Most of those we meet in the film wouldn’t have been born either and the rest would have lived lives with a considerable loss of riches.
And I also think deeply on the fact that this woman was born and how we see her effect upon all those whose lives she touched. Then, most importantly, I think about Clarence Oddbody’s line with respect to the child that might not have been born to this glorious woman – a child who might have been aborted. I think about how this child has touched all the lives of those in the documentary. The possibility that this child might have never been born is, within the context of the story relayed, so utterly palpable that I can’t imagine audiences not breaking down.
I can’t imagine the loss to all those people whose lives this child touched. And the world? The world would genuinely be a less rich place without this child.
THEN, it gets really personal. I think about all those in MY life who could have NOT been born – people who are very close, people (two in particular) who have indelibly made a mark on my life – people whose non-existence would have rendered my life in ways I try to repress.
And I weep. Kind of like Brando says as Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now: ‘I … I … I cried. I wept like some grandmother.’
Most of all, my tears are reserved for the film’s aura of unconditional love, its incredible restorative power. Sarah Polley is often referred to in Canada as a ‘national treasure’. She’s far more than that.
She’s a treasure to the world – period.
And so, finally, is her film.
Watch the trailer: