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Movie Review: ‘Stories We Tell’

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Stories We Tell is an extremely personal documentary, directed by the very talented Sarah Polley (Away Stories-We-Tell-Screenshot1From Her, Take this Waltz). Featuring interviews from her real-life family, friends, and acquaintances, the movie begins by telling the story of Polley’s mother, Diane, who died of Cancer in 1990. But the story doesn’t stop there; Polley goes on to examine the unique circumstances surrounding her birth, as well as the complex relationship of her eccentric parents.

In a way, watching makes you feel as though you’re invading the privacy of this family, especially since the film seems to focus on a lot of intimate, embarrassing moments in their lives. Yet, the approach feels inviting; every member of the family appears happy to share what they remember and be a part of the film, which helps keep the tone feeling consistently positive throughout.

If you’re someone who can’t open your mind to documentaries, the idea of seeing a film centered around a family you’ve never heard of may seem exta off-putting. However, you’ll be glad to know that Stories We Tell has a nontraditional approach, adding in actors to give life to the narration, which is written by Michael Polley, Sarah Polley’s father.

The scenes that feature actors are silent, with the look and feel of old home-movie footage. They blend into the talking-heads documentary style seamlessly, almost making you believe it’s real video from the past. It’s quite the accomplishment, and it works way better than I could have imagined.

Even with the narration there to add context, I’m still not entirely sure what Stories We Tell is about —  I just know that I absolutely loved it. It’s one of the most beautiful, emotionally-engaging films I have ever seen, and I felt sucked in from beginning to end. Polley is a master of storytelling, hiding major story details until the perfect moment, dropping them on you when you least expect it.  This film will leave its mark on you long after the end credits finish rolling.

How Sarah Polley managed to make what, in all reality, is a simple story so thoughtful and compelling is beyond me – but she did it perfectly. What likely started as an amorphous personal journey for her, somehow was crafted into a cohesive film that the world absolutely has to see – even if you won’t be able to fully articulate what you take away from it.

The movie proposes, among other things, that it’s about the fallibility of memory, and  how difficult it can be to reconstruct the events of the past. I think that’s certainly part of it. And watching the interviews of various individuals – edited together perfectly – discussing their unique take on a particular event is truly fascinating, especially when it seems no one agrees on the nuances.

But it doesn’t end there. Stories We Tell examines the complexity of human relationships, and the beauty that surrounds people who don’t fit within the social norm – which the Polley family, full or artists, actors, and writers, certainly does not.  Additionally, the last chapter also provides a look at the filmmaking process that goes into trying to make sense of a complex movie like this, and how Sarah Polley made the leap from personal video project to a powerful documentary about the human condition.

I felt like I got to know the Polley family personally, and I love each and every one of them. It’s hard to put into words what I felt leaving this movie, but I do know that it was intense. I felt like I was fighting back tears and smiling constantly, full of an aesthetic joy. Stories We Tell made me feel irrationally in love with everyone around me – only art can move a person in a way that’s impossible to put into words without falling short.  You just have to experience it for yourself.

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About Chad Michael Van Alstin

Chad is an award-winning libertarian opinion columnist. He's done with that now. Having earned himself a B.A. in Mass Communication, Chad now spends most of his time as a wage laborer, killing the pain by consuming as many video games and movies as possible. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadVanAlstin