Sarah Polley is an incredibly talented actress turned filmmaker, and we have literally watched her grow up on screen since adolescence, so we wanted to love this acclaimed doc but found it a bit of a muddle that ultimately delivers less insight than promised.
People create narratives about their lives & those narratives often differ based on POV: not exactly big news. (JLH: 3.5/5)
Click HERE for our FF2 Haiku.
Filmmaker Sarah Polley is someone who has been in our lives for a very long time now. I know it seems strange to say this about someone we’ve never actually met, but the fact is that my husband Rich and I spend a whole lot of time at the movies, and Sarah Polley has been in some of our favorites.
She first entered our consciousness in the late ’90s when we saw the art house hit The Sweet Hereafter. It was released in 1997 so we probably saw it soon after, but I can’t tell you exactly when because back then we weren’t film critics yet. But I’m sure we both loved it, and even though she was just a teenager at the time, Sarah Polley’s performance in The Sweet Hereafter made an indelible impression on us.
We weren’t the only ones who noticed. Turns out “Sarah” (I’m going to start calling her Sarah now rather than Polley, for reasons that will soon become obvious) was already a well-known presence on Canadian television, where she made her debut in 1985 when she was barely 6 years old. Now in her mid-30s, Sarah already has an astonishing 55 acting credits on IMDb! Here are some of our favorites: Guinevere (1999), The Weight of Water (2000), The Claim (2000), My Life Without Me (2003), and The Secret Life of Words (2005). Now these are all art house films, so it’s possible you’ve never seen any of them, but me, I love them all. And note that all these film were directed by women except for The Claim (which was directed by Michael Winterbottom), so Brava, Sarah: You Go Girl 🙂
Early on Sarah also started directing shorts and TV shows, and in 2006 she released her first feature film Away From Her. Then Away From Her got 2 Oscar nominations (for Sarah’s screenplay as well as Julie Christie’s performance), and Sarah leaped on to my Oscar Impact Chart for 2007. I had watched an incredibly talented young actress transform herself into a barrier-busting filmmaker on my watch! I was personally thrilled and professionally invested.
But here’s my problem: While I liked Away From Her and her next film Take This Waltz well enough, I think Sarah’s filmmaking accomplishments have been over-hyped and never more so than with her newest film Stories We Tell.
Stories We Tell is a documentary which melds “talking head” interviews with real footage from years gone by as well as simulations of scenes for which there is no footage. Actors are paid to recreate major plot points specified by the filmmakers, and the filmmakers also decide how clear they want to be about drawing the line between actual footage and scenes which they themselves have written and cast. In No Place on Earth, for example, filmmaker Janet Tobias is upfront about using actors to play characters inside the cave. In Stories We Tell, on the other hand, Sarah has chosen deliberate obfuscation. There is no right or wrong, and in this particular case, the “how” of storytelling is part of the point.
So far so good, but what is the story Sarah wants to tell? After puzzling about this for several days, I’m still not sure I know the answer. Do we really need to be told, now, in 2013, that stories are always told from the POV of the teller, and that no one storyteller is necessarily more accurate or reliable than any other?
Interviewing relatives and old family friends, Sarah certainly gathers many different points of view about her extended family (some of whom, but not all, are actual Polleys), but the whole remains less than the sum of its parts. Yes, I am deliberately obfuscating here myself. If I give away Sarah’s secrets, then you might be less inclined to learn about them for yourself… So I won’t take the decision (Do I want to see this film?) away from you. It’s all yours.
Perhaps the fact that we have watched Sarah grow into adulthood on screen has biased us by making us too aware of all the things she is not telling us? For example, she presents her relationship with her father, Michael Polley, as if their life together was oh so normal, but we know it wasn’t. Come on, Sarah: Nobody who has 55 acting credits on IMDb before the age of 35 had a “normal” childhood! Sure Michael and Sarah may well have built a snowman or two together, but most of the time Sarah was on set somewhere, and often Michael was there with her.
Nevertheless, by the end of Stories We Tell Michael Polley has emerged from the haze to become a heart-wrenching tragic hero. And my guts tells me that what is here in Stories We Tell is a good start, but a more conventional film about Michael Polley (should someone ever make it) will be even better.
Top Photo: Is Sarah hiding behind her camera?
Bottom Photo: Young Sarah with Michael Polley.
Photo Credits: Roadside Attractions © 2013