It’s difficult to imagine a mystery more earthshaking than the mystery of one’s parents. When we hear of the travails and scandals and secret knowledge of other people’s mothers and fathers, they seem to us conventional and banal. When they belong to our own mother and father, they cut to the core of our being. Why? Our parents gave us birth, existence, identity, life. They’re the primum mobile of all we are. Learning about those mysteries is like discovering the background radiation from the Big Bang, in literal as well as figurative ways.
Actress and filmmaker Sarah Polley tells her family’s story in Stories We Tell (2012). Loosely structured around interviews with Polley’s brothers and sisters, her father, and others close to the story, the documentary is focused on her mother, whose energy and vitality made her the center of attention wherever she was. Polley doesn’t speak much in the film, though we see her talking with family members, asking questions, and engaging in conversation. She mainly allows other to tell the tale, though she imposes shape and meaning by the questions she asks, the editing, and her directorial style. It’s no surprise that different speakers have different portions and versions of the story to tell. One brother recalls how involved their father was in raising his children. Another observes that he wasn’t involved at all. Everyone seems to agree that his marriage to their mother was a mismatch. Perhaps the father wasn’t especially aware of the mismatch--everyone agrees on his own clueless reserve. But the mother sought release through a variety of activities, including theater. Children ponder the mystery of their parents’ lives. In this case the film uncovers a true mystery, and a surprise. In the process the speakers remember their mother and talk about her impact on them. Polley tells her father that she wants to make the film in order to understand the nature of truth, how difficult it is to come by, and the illusory nature of memory. In fact, we see by the end of the film that she had a far more fundamental reason. This film is funny, interesting, charming, and sad, all at once--Polley’s stirring tribute to her mother, her father, her siblings, and important others as well.