Sydney Film Festival – Stories We Tell review

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By Simon Miraudo
June 16, 2013

Stories We Tell is just about the loveliest portrait of a family I’ve seen. A documentary similar in structure to Capturing the Friedmans – but ultimately more joyful and less concerned with harrowing tales of paedophilic clowns – it explores the family history of Canadian director Sarah Polley through numerous interviews and home movies. Taking a cue from her fellow countryman Guy Maddin, she attempts to reconstruct the events leading up to her birth, and even up to the making of this movie, in an effort to better understand who she is (a’la Maddin’s My Winnipeg). Polley argues that her mission is to seek the nature of truth. Perhaps with all these people telling the same story – even if some significant details differ and there’s the occasional unconfirmed flourish – she’ll get close to a complete picture. That’s an unnecessary justification for what is already a fascinating endeavour on a purely personal level.

The meaning of Stories We Tell is right there in the title. It’s about the narratives we invent for our lives to give them significance. Unable to recount our entire tale from beyond the grave, we create from the minutiae of our daily routine these mini arcs and second acts that make our existence more cinematic, and ultimately more meaningful. We’d like to think of our life story as a great romance, or a redemption tale, or, for those who find each day a new battle, a tragicomic saga. It’s all a lie; the nicest one we’ll ever tell, really. It also goes a ways to explaining why we are the only species that creates art; burdened with the knowledge of our own mortality, inventing Gods that will take care of us, we attempt to fit our years on this Earth into a compelling package, as if a life’s only value is as a piece of consumable entertainment. Stories We Tell pays tribute to that most human of compulsions. What isn’t conveyed in that unassuming title is the power of this picture. Polley expertly moulds this journey into a slow-burning mystery; one with bountiful and extraordinary rewards.

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I am going to side-step some of her more impressive feats, as they verge into what I would consider spoiler territory. It’s not necessarily the sign of a great review when the writer refuses to actually break down why a movie is good, and how it’s been successfully assembled. I would like, just this once, to be a cheerleader instead. Throw me in critic jail if you must! Like a good magic trick, it’s all in the reveal, and it would be antithetical for me to spoil the surprises of Stories We Tell whilst simultaneously encouraging people to discover it for themselves. Look, once the film has expanded beyond the festival circuit and found its way into everyone’s hearts, let’s agree to meet atop the Empire State Building on New Year’s Eve and share our adoration for Polley’s masterwork, okay? Until then, let  me play this very rare card from my deck that allows me to celebrate a feature without ruining it for the rest of you.

I will say, however, that as a tribute to Sarah’s parents – particularly her late mother, Diane – Stories We Tell is mighty affecting. Despite my protests above and warnings of “spoilers,” don’t think any dark, major revelations about her family are unveiled. This is simply a gorgeously realised and warmly compiled family album, which lingers with us not because its subjects are so unusual and alien, but because they feel so close to home. What a success.

5/5

Check out Simon Miraudo’s other reviews here.

Stories We Tell played the Sydney Film Festival. It arrives in Australian cinemas September 2013.

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