“Who cares about our family?” asks the sister of actress/writer/director Sarah Polley, in Polley’s first documentary, Stories We Tell, currently in limited release.
Who cares about any of our lives? Well, we all care about telling our stories—even the worst storytellers among us write status updates. Polley tries to understand this urge to find a narrative in our lives and to tell it. This particular story is about her mother Diane Polley’s adultery, Diane’s early death from cancer, and how her children and husband perceived what happened. It’s really not about Sarah Polley’s family, but a family. The ordinary nature of the Polley family’s dysfunction makes it poignant.
Polley reveals in the trailer for the PG-13 film that she may be the result of her mother’s adultery. At one point Michael Polley, Diane’s husband, describes to Sarah how her mother considered aborting her. Diane’s doctor (who in the film describes himself as pro-life) encouraged her to keep the baby. Michael tells Sarah, in one of the film’s most emotional moments, “It’s amazing how close you were to never existing.”
What Sarah candidly shows is a family very lost after her mother’s death and the subsequent revelation about her affair. All but one of the children, and even Michael, attempt to justify her unfaithfulness as “finding love.” The son who admits he felt disappointed in his mom is the only child who stayed married after learning of the affair—the three daughters all got divorces.
As the title reveals, this is not a film about Sarah’s self-discovery but about storytelling. As the film opens we see a crew setting up for an interview with Sarah’s sister as she talks about how nervous she is. Sarah shows different family members contradicting each other on small details, or disagreeing with how the story should be told.
One character tells Sarah, “The crucial function of art is to tell truth.” Though Sarah Polley seems unsure about any deeper truth behind her family’s story, she shows that she is a very good storyteller.