Sundance Review: 'Stories We Tell'

"We talk and talk ... without conveying what we are really like." — Michael Polley

Sarah Polley has made her mark as an actress and as a director of such moving films as "Away From Her," and "Take This Waltz," which showcased her abilities as a thoughtful, compassionate filmmaker. These qualities and more come into play in her documentary narrative film "Stories We Tell," which carefully explores personal history and the importance of myths in our lives.

To reveal too much about the plot would be a travesty, so suffice it to say Polley is conducting interviews with her entire family, including many brothers and sisters, about their mother, Diane, and their father, Michael. She's interested in seeing the differences between varying accounts of things that happened to various family members, and exploring the concepts of memory and time. While this may sound a bit vague, the film is similarly meandering at first, taking you on a journey where you have no concept of the destination.

The interviews are coupled with home video footage, and it's remarkable the effect that one has on the other; images take on a second meaning when coupled with different words at various points in the film. It offers the unique sensation of traveling through people's memories. What begins slowly soon takes on a life of its own, and by the time the hour mark rolls around, you're locked in, utterly absorbed in the personal matters of the Polley family.

Any attempt to portray an event through personal recollection is already a doomed affair, as the past is remembered falsely, our minds working overtime to change events, making them more palatable or interesting, sometimes even worse. Polley seems to believe that if she can get enough personal accounts of the same stories, that there's a way to sift down through the silt to a few grains of truth that might explain not only who she is, but who they all are. It is in our relation to one another, and especially in our relation to our families, that we are reflected back most truly.

This funny and touching film could do with a bit of editing. It tends to drag a bit, especially near the end, and though we're privy to the thoughts and feelings of Polley's family, we're given scant verbalized insight into her own thinking. The camera lingers on her face behind the scenes, often held in an impassive, pensive expression. While Polley certainly conveys a great deal in "Stories We Tell" through images and the careful editing and selection of words, the film leaves you wondering about the nature of truth and wanting to know more about the hidden lives of those around us.

Grade: B