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REVIEW: Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley – 2013)



Viewed at the 2013 Sydney Film Festival

Stories We Tell is cinema cutting to the profound truth of why we use narrative to make sense of the world. Film-maker Sarah Polley opens her private life and the revelation she was the product of an affair to piece together the fallout of that bombshell. Not content with relying on her singular perspective of these events Polley insists upon capturing all sides of her mother’s (and her) story. This retrospective, years after her mothers passing, uses a combination of SUPER 8 home video, interviews with her family (old and new) and mother’s friends she tries to make sense of her origin; and to get to the core of the woman whose decisions continue to shape her.

The players are Polley’s wonderfully eclectic and authentic family. Their palpable candour makes this tale strikingly vivid. Unlike the normally stoic professional ‘talking head’ accounts in essayist documentaries, the dialogue between Polley and her interviewees is refreshingly unpolished. There’s even a moment where her older brother breaks up her line of questioning to give her advise about how to edit together the reveal of her birth. And what’s more, Polley takes his advice. It’s endearing and played for simultaneous dramatic potency and ‘meta’ humour about the entire production. Polley’s questions too are surprisingly cutting; so much so that one of her interviewees proclaims something to the effect of, “Wow, I better go to the bathroom, this is going to take a while.” And during the inquisition there’s a few hilariously unprepared interviewees, whose attempts to conceal their part in the story create sublime, awkward, uncontrollable laughs.

Polley’s narrative cinema background only makes her more acutely aware that her perspective is a necessary voice to be heard throughout. Her agenda and motivations are omnipresent without being suffocating. There’s some wonderful moments where she’s directing her father’s (that’s her non-biological father — who is an actor/writer) reading from his novel on the subject. When he doesn’t quite hit the right note in a particular line reading she’s quick to intervene from the engineers booth. These peeks into their relationship and to her style as a director form some of the highlights of the film.

It’s a credit to Polley’s construction of this narrative that you’re able to be so wholly carried away with this film. You’re in for some amazingly transcendent moments leading to the conclusion. Warning: you may stand up and implore, “SARAH F*CKING POLLEY LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!”

Stories We Tell is as intimate as documentary gets and yet it’s honest about the fundamental manipulative nature of cinema. Polley has crafted her opus from the very fabric of her deeply personal, yet relatable history. It’s quite simply the most beautiful, wondrous and moving examination into how your family, in all their imperfection, help define you.


Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to the audio review on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.

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3 thoughts on “REVIEW: Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley – 2013)

  1. Paul

    Hey, I loved this film too. But re: your header warning – they are not ‘potential’ spoilers. THEY ARE MAJOR SPOILERS! Why ruin the film’s major surprises for everyone?

    1. Hi Paul,

      I don’t think you can review this film without talking about the content.

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