Stories We Tell

Rating: Who is Sarah Polley’s real father, and does it matter? How many families are strong enough to survive digging under the surface.

Stories We TellImagine as an adult you have developed into an accomplished actress/director. Furthermore, imagine that you are still haunted by a childhood where you were constantly asked by everyone, “You don’t look like your father at all.” Is it best to leave unanswered questions alone, or do you address it head on?

In Sarah Polley’s extraordinary Stories We Tell, she has the guts and temerity to confront this personal issue in the form of a documentary that is destined to be included in this year’s Oscar nominees. The film reflects a decision of an enormously talented director to bare personal issues on the silver screen that in a small way reflects everyone’s life.

In Ms. Polley’s case, her mother has died years ago of cancer, and her father continues to live largely alone. She has a stepbrother and sister from her mother’s prior marriage, and her own brother and sister are also included in the film. Her father freely participates, and you end up embracing them all as a personal member of your own family.

With Stories We Tell, her camera explores her mother’s private life as an actress, and in a sense it explores everyone’s existence. Running from a prior regrettable marriage that cost her the custody of her two children, Ms. Polley’s mother was an effervescent woman who, like many, was seeking the secret of life. While she loved her second husband, they had really become little more than roommates, a proposition that will cause many viewers to squirm in their seats.

Of all the great things about this film, the appearance and contributions of her father exceeds all expectations. While he truly loved his deceased wife, he harbors no animosity from the fact that her affair with an actor resulted in the birth of his youngest child, namely Ms. Polley.

In attempting to relive their prior life, we all have to confront the absurd reality of trying to do so. What do you truly remember about your deceased parents, and what do you choose to exaggerate? I personally grew up in Batesville, Indiana, and my father was a rural mail carrier. I loved my parents for all of their limited weaknesses, and those memories will go with me to my grave.

On the other hand, Ms. Polley brings us a documentary where she fully exposes all of her family’s strengths and shortcomings. The whole documentary is meant to examine not only whether her mother had an affair, but if Ms. Polley was a product of that liaison. In the process, the viewer is called upon to examine a number of personal feelings, not the least of which is your view of abortion.

For example, Ms. Polley’s family remembers that their mother was 42 when she discovered that she was pregnant, and she contemplated an abortion. This was in the 1970’s, and that was not an easy choice even then. On the other hand, though most of Ms. Polley’s family identify themselves as pro-choice, what would have happened if she would have had that abortion and the world would have been denied an actress/director who has brought us a number of memorable films?

Think of her delightful roles in such provocative horror films as Splice (2009) and Dawn of the Dead (2004), not to mention her wonderful performance as John Adams’ daughter in the TV miniseries of the same name (2008). Additionally, her directorial contributions of Take This Waltz (2011) and Away from Her (2006) should not be overlooked.

As I watched Stories We Tell, I was reminded of the frequent political use of the phrase “traditional family values.” When given the opportunity to look behind our national social curtain, whose family are these guys really talking about?

In the end, we all do the best we can, trying to overcome our mistakes along the way. Nobody is perfect, including Ms. Polley’s late mother, so let’s stop being so judgmental, shall we.