I don’t use the b-word very often, but Sarah Polley’s new documentary is brilliant.
Polley was a familiar face to me from various acting roles in 2006 when she made her debut as a feature director. With the release of the achingly accomplished film Away From Her, she is now always a writer-director in the forefront of my mind.
Her new film, a remarkable documentary, explores truth, memory, and family secrets with Polley mainly behind the camera interviewing family members and a few close friends and colleagues of her late mother.
What is most extraordinary about the film is not the stories they tell – though some of them are a bit eye-opening – but the way Polley pieces, paces, and crafts them into a glorious whole that is so much more than the sum of the film’s many parts.
The pacing of the film and balancing of the various stories is carefully calibrated to give each participant just the right amount of screen time at just the right point in the telling of the overarching story to speak to the larger truths of the situation. And – with incredible nuance and skill – this unfolding reveals Polley’s own emotional arc as a character and establishes her own set of complex and evolving emotions about the stories she hears.
Many, if not most, of the stories told affect her profoundly, and I won’t delve into the particulars of that because to do so would diminish your surprise when watching the film, but here Polley reveals herself as the filmmaker with a transparency of process that is perfectly integrated into the rest of the film, a presence that both complements and cements the other essential elements of the film.
Seldom is it I have seen a film that so skillfully adapts forms and conventions to serve the needs of the story at hand. Stories We Tell is original, accomplished, and engaging. I consider it a must-see documentary.
If you haven’t seen Away From Her, make it a point to see Polley’s debut narrative feature after you take in Stories We Tell.