Near the beginning of Stories We Tell, director Sarah Polley's documentary about her family, her sister Joanna is asked how she feels about being part of the movie. Perfectly candid, she responds, "I guess I have this sorta instinctive reaction of, like, 'Who fucking cares about our family?'"
It's one of the earliest moments of unguarded honesty in a film that's full of them, but it also speaks to a problem that a lot of "personal" projects have. A work based entirely on your own life, whether it's a memoir or a one-woman-show or a documentary, carries the twin risks of self-indulgence and self-immolation; you're exposing parts of yourself to an audience who will judge you or, perhaps worse, find you not worth judging at all. Polley, an actress in The Sweet Hereafter and the Dawn of the Dead remake who has focused more on directing in recent years, flirts with all kinds of disaster with Stories We Tell but, remarkably, she sidesteps most of the usual pitfalls. She makes you care very, very deeply.
It helps if you've seen—and liked—Polley's first two films as a director. Away From Her, based on the Alice Munro short story, starred Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent as a longtime married couple going through a major crisis once the wife develops Alzheimer's. She followed that up with Take This Waltz, which Polley wrote on her own, a romantic drama that featured Michelle Williams as a dissatisfied woman torn between her loyal, loving, dull husband Seth Rogen and a flirty, mysterious romantic interest played by Luke Kirby. Away From Her was stately and serious, while Take This Waltz was messy and emotional, but at their core they both had to do with relationships: what makes them last and what can tear them apart.
Both movies were well-observed, if a bit uneven, but they hold the key to what makes Stories We Tell so terrific. It's easy to deduce, in hindsight, that she made those fiction films first to gird herself for the real story she's been struggling with for so long.
The movie focuses on Polley's mother Diane, who died shortly after Polley's 11th birthday in 1990. Polley has gathered together her older siblings, her father, and some family friends to reminisce about this energetic spirit who, we begin to understand, was something of an enigma. A stage actress and singer, Diane is described in glowing terms, and we see home movies that suggest the radiance she brought to those around her. Polley, who was the youngest of Diane's children, asks everyone she interviews to tell her everything they remember about her mother, piecing together a snapshot of this vivacious woman.
If that was simply Stories We Tell's objective, we'd have an affectionate portrait from daughter to mother, but nothing that memorable for a general audience. But Polley's interest in Diane goes far beyond hearing old stories. For years, it was a running joke in her family that Polley's biological father wasn't the brood's dad but someone else: a man Diane had a clandestine affair with at some point in her life. (The reason this joke got started was that she doesn't look a thing like her dad.) The documentary plays as a detective story in which we follow along as Polley explains how she set about discovering if the joke had any truth to it. If you don't know the actual story, I urge you to resist finding out until you see the movie, which goes beyond simply answering that mystery and investigates precisely what impact it had on members of her family, who had their own opinions of who Polley's biological father was.
But it's not just the mystery at the heart of Stories We Tell that makes this movie juicier and more compelling than your typical "personal" project. It's the intelligence she brings to the material. Most first-person confessionals derive a lot of their effectiveness from an optimistic belief that because we're interested in the person telling the story, we'll be invested in their concerns. For the most part, Polley doesn't make that assumption in Stories We Tell, shifting the focus away from questions like, "How is this affecting Sarah?" to more universal concerns about family and the ways our own perceptions of our past can be shaped by the opinions of those around us.
Without being overly precious about it, Polley has actually constructed a rather intricate structure for her documentary, which includes having her father Michael (an actor like her mother) reading from a narration whose origin isn't clear at first. There are mysteries within mysteries in Stories We Tell, and even the title isn't exactly what it appears to be. In the wrong hands, this could all be insufferably adorable—another young person mooning over family angst in a cutesy way—but in her feature films Polley has shown an ability to create some distance between herself and her suffering characters, letting us feel their pain without wallowing in it. In a sense, Stories We Tell, which is so much about trying to create a "character" out of Diane, is treated like another fiction film. That doesn't mean it's not intensely personal for Polley—the film is quite moving in how it portrays many of her family members and friends—but she has a healthy perspective on the material that suggests not only that she's felt these things fully but that she's absorbed them and learned something from what has happened.
This is one of those documentaries that actually has spoilers in it, but even if you think you know the whole story, there are still some nice surprises in here that argue that, even when we think we know everything about those closest to us, there are still things we'll never quite understand. Joanna may not get why people would care about her family, but it's easy to grasp from the audience's perspective: We see ourselves and our own families up there on the screen.
Grierson & Leitch write regularly for Deadspin about movies. Follow them @griersonleitch.