I saw an intriguing film this past week made by young Canadian actor/writer/director Sarah Polley, called "Stories We Tell." The 2012 film was produced by the National Film Board of Canada, and has won several film festival awards. The film was just released in the US this week. The film is a perfect launching point for discussion about the power of our personal narrative and how it may differ from the narratives of others in our own family.
The film documents Polley's search to learn more about her mother, who was a Canadian actress and casting director. Her mother died of cancer when she was 11.Within her family, it had been astanding joke that she doesn't look like the rest of her four older siblings. She's the only redhead in the bunch. Her siblings, her father, her parents' close friends and family are all interviewed by Polley in the excavation of family secrets and the search for understanding and truth.
After her mother's death, Polley was raised by her father, Michael Polley, a former actor who turned to selling insurance after marrying her mother. In the film, Michael reads selected parts of his own memoirs with his reflections on his relationships with the children, and a balanced view of the pitfalls and gaps in his own marriage. Michael and Sarah, his youngest daughter, grew close as he finished raising her alone after his wife's death.
In the film, there is Sarah's investigation of a rumor that she is the product of an extramarital affair between her mother and someone other than her father.
I won't spoil the surprises of what Sarah finds out, but you owe it to yourself to see it. The film is artfully crafted, drawing us in as layers of facts and perceptions are shared in successive interviews Sarah conducts on film. There is much to ponder about her mother's true character, and about different aspects that were known to different people. Among the talented cast, there are 8mm film footage of look-alikes who artfully appear and bring the narration to life.
There are questions about who the story belongs to, and the different take different friends and family have on the story. There are wonderful insights about what leads to infidelity, questions about whether people in a relationship ever love completely equally, and about what is the core of being a parent. There is an examination of what really is family. In addition, there is a sense of how impossible it is for one to be fully known, and how many different people may have their own, unique understanding of the same individual.
"Stories We Tell" is a powerful little film, and while simply made, gets to the heart of the complexity of being fully human. The film reminds us that while we have our own narrative, so do the people we care about.