Review: Sarah Polley's 'Stories We Tell' emerges as an early favorite for 2013
This past weekend, I sat down with Michelle Williams to talk about her role in Sam Raimi's "Oz The Great and Powerful," and we'll have that interview for you soon here at HitFix. Before we started, though, I mentioned to her that I just saw Sarah Polley's latest film, a personal documentary called "Stories We Tell," and that it completely changed the way I thought about Polley's previous film, "Take This Waltz." Williams lit up and we chatted about both films until they told me they needed to roll tape, and it's obvious that she is very fond of Polley as a filmmaker and just as impressed by her work as I am.
When I saw "Take This Waltz" at the Toronto Film Festival, it pretty much flattened me emotionally. I put it on my top ten for 2011, and I have seen the film three or four times since then, loving it just a little bit more each time. Polley has a strong, fascinating perspective, and it's not just because she's a woman. Yes, there are things about her work that are distinctly feminine, but she's also just got this huge curiosity about the really painful parts of life and the way those painful parts relate to the joy we feel. If you've seen "Waltz," you know it's about a married couple who come to a parting of the ways, and it's not anything the guy does. It's because the wife is simply open to life in a way that leaves her unguarded. She falls in love. She doesn't mean to do it, but she's wired to do it. She can't help but do it. She falls in love because that's the sort of person she is. That's what is important to her. She is so full of a certain kind of vitality and energy and when she finds someone who connects to it, she can't resist. And why should she? It's her nature.
That could just as easily be a description of Polley's mother as presented in "Stories We Tell," and about midway through the film, I suddenly understood why "Take This Waltz" played for me in a way that films about marital infidelity almost never do. It's one of those topics that really bothers me most of the time. It's either treated as a given, which bugs me, or it's painted in melodramatic terms, or it's framed romantically, which reeeeeeally bugs me. But in "Waltz," it is simply a result of this person being who she is, and in Polley's own life, a story unfolded because of infidelity and someone's basic nature that Polley did not know until she was an adult, a story that she has now captured in a technically sly and narratively illuminating manner. I call "Stories We Tell" a documentary, and it is. Sort of. But at the same time, it's just as carefully staged and scripted a portrait of a turbulent family life as "Silver Linings Playbook," but in a way that sneaks up on you as a viewer.
Without explaining the film's various surprises, it's still possible to express admiration for the way Polley structures the film, the way she doles out the various things she wants to explore, the careful presentation of information throughout the film. This is nothing less than the single most important story about who she is and how she relates to her entire family, and she wants to present it to you as a viewer in much the same way that it was presented to her. She wants you to feel blindsided the same ways that she did. She wants you to feel the same paradigm shifts with the same intensity, and I think she does an extraordinary job of making that work. This is a quietly brilliant movie, the sort of thing that kept me thinking about it for days afterwards, admiring some new part of what she'd done and how she'd done it. From "Away From Her" to "Waltz" to this film, she has demonstrated such finely detailed, intuitive skill as a storyteller. She communicates the subtle things that make a moment or a story matter, and in this particular story, those fine details are things she's chewed on for her whole life.
Her family appears in the film, speaking as themselves, telling their versions of things, and it's in the addition of version to version to version to version that the real truth comes into focus. Her own version has to be taken as this, the movie, this document that attempts to weave everything together, including fiction, into "truth." That's the same process we all go through every day, and Polley's film manages to comment on the process while also serving as an example of what results from it. That sounds like some heady intellectual exercise, but it's not. It's very emotional, very direct. It is bracing and honest and heartfelt, like her previous films, and the reason her movies hurt so very much is because of how vulnerable she makes herself in making them. To tell this story after making "Take This Waltz" is to make that film even more personal, even more tied to her very DNA as a person. Not many artists in film right now are this willing to lay themselves bare, but I think it's what makes Polley such a significant voice.
"Stories We Tell" will start a limited theatrical run in May through Roadside Attractions. Normally I'd review it closer to release, but honestly, I couldn't wait to tell you how much that should excite you. This one's pretty special.