Stories We Tell (2013): Sara Polley’s Aspirational Docu

After stumbling with her second feature, “Take This Waltz,” the intelligent director Sara Polley (“Away from Her”) is back on terra ferma with the original, ambitious, and inspirational documentary, “Stories We Tell.”

World-premiering at the 2012 Venice Film Fest and playing at the Toronto Film Fest to great critical acclaim, “Stories We Tell” is now released by Roadside Attractions in a platform mode.

There have been several work about the elusive, mysterious nature of “Truth” (if there is such a thing), going back to Akira Kurosawa’s seminal “Rashomon,”
which depicts the same events from different perspectives and P.O.V.s.

As writer and director, Polley is familiar with this tradition, and her nonfictional work goes beyond it, showing not only that reality is more dramatic, strange, and bizarre than fiction, but that each and every family has its own stories to tell, and that, potentially, there are as many stories and storytellers as there are individual members of the same clan.

End result is a formally elegant, personal, and even transformative documentary that presents a complex labyrinth of tales that are related from different perspectives, and thus leave a good deal of ambiguity.

Serving as a storyteller herself, an astute filmmaker (who continues to improve technically), and an investigative private eye, she unravels all kinds of facts, secret, myths (and possibly distortions and lies) kept by a family of storytellers.

She playfully interviews and interrogates a cast of individuals, asking them the same questions. As expected the characters differ in their dramatic skills, personal charisma, subjective memory, and degree of reliability. That the responses are to a large extent different, and at time contradictory, is no surprise, because they ultimately depend on the social position of the teller and his/her memory of the same events.

Centering on the departure of the mother, each interviewee relates in his/her idiosyncratic way versions of the family past and present, based on nostalgic recollections of facts and myths. Polley unravels the paradoxes that form what we take to be the essence of family life, with all its warmth and love and other positive qualities, but she does not neglect the messy, disappointing and frustrating elements that prevail in every family.

Ultimately, as the title indicates, the feature is about the endless intricacies of family life, but it also provide profound commentary on the nature of storytelling itself, or narrativity (to use a more academic jargon), namely, the universal need to construct and reconstruct more or less shapely narratives, which fulfill both personal and collective functions in defining our identities as individuals as well as members of particular families.

Running time: 108 Minutes.