Jun 6, 2013
Sarah Polley’s new movie, Stories We Tell, is excellent in revealing character after character from her childhood as she seeks to know her mother more completely. The film entertains while raising big questions about our ability to apprehend reality through memory.
It’s a subject that invites didacticism and pretentiousness, but Polley has found a way to show rather than tell, to enact important, interesting experiences rather than summarizing or lecturing about them, even when her overall purpose is as philosophical—as epistemological—as it is personal.
Her strategy involves a question of authorial honesty: do the ends justify the means? But I can’t delve into that without spoiling the movie experience for others. I’ll just say this: your take on the movie won’t be complete unless you’ve paid careful attention to the closing credits.
A film about the nature of memory and reality might sound too heavy for a summer’s evening, but Polley’s characters and plot keep moving right along in this 1960s home movie camera’s characterization of Sarah Polley’s mother, Diane, and some significant people in her life. That movement is both entertaining and intellectually engaging, as people and events are alternately revealed and concealed.
I think most viewers will be pulled into the Polley story and care about some or all of these people—the lively, charismatic, lovable Diane and, more importantly, two generations of her inner circle as they react to Diane.
The memories and versions of Diane are slightly or dramatically different from each other. It’s like that parlor game called Telephone, or Truth, where the story that was whispered by Benny to Betty becomes altered significantly as it’s passed on in whispers to and from a half dozen or so other friends. In Polley’s movie, the stakes are higher; the story is much more than a parlor game. But who has it right?
The characters are articulate, interesting Canadians who have done interesting things—especially in the world of theater. And the stage, of course, presents its own questions about reality. Why might we weep for King Lear but not the old crank across the street?
If Lear’s daughter Goneril and his loyal servant Kent gave their separate, personal accounts of what has happened to the father and king, we might think we were hearing about two different people. Of course, honesty in the telling would be an issue, too.
The evil Goneril and the impossibly loyal Kent would also be narrating what they need to believe. On top of being genuinely mistaken about the actual Lear, they might knowingly deceive their audience here and there in order to win them over. By the end of the story, we might throw up our hands and wonder if we can know the old guy even existed.
Can a movie that moves and sounds as natural and realistic as Stories We Tell raise legitimate epistemological questions? Can it stir us to wondering (again, I hope) how we can or cannot know what we think we know? Yes, I think so. For pleasure and for more careful thinking about the past, see this film. Then wonder, till the cows come home, whether the popcorn was real. Either way, it’s a richer two hours than anything else you’d have done.