I always go to Salon's Andrew O'Hehir for movie recommendations, and the documentary Stories We Tell is at the top of his top-ten for 2013 (though it was released in Canada in late 2012). In fact, I've been meaning to see this film, in which actress and director Sarah Polley investigates a family secret about her dead mother by interviewing everyone involved, ever since I heard this interview with Polley on Q. I adored this film, and of course I'm delighted it's Canadian. For me Sarah's firecracker mother Diane was its heart. I just loved her. O'Hehir calls the film a love letter to the man who raised Polley, but I felt it was equally, if not more so, a loving tribute to her fantastically vibrant mum. (Hearing Diane Polley's five kids refer to her in this Canadian way, the way I referred to my own mother and the way I refer to myself with Peanut, melted my nostalgic heart.)
Diane Polley was the first woman in Canada to lose custody of her kids after leaving a loveless marriage (to a man under whose care her kids were subsequently abused) for another man (Michael Polley). She also adored her work as an actress, and was the life of every party, described by various interviewees as the flame to everyone else's moth. She tried balancing motherhood with living life to the fullest, and the suffering she experienced struggling with that is heartbreaking. One of the most moving moments of the film for me was when one of her daughters tearfully admits her relief at having discovered that her mother had found some joy that she'd never known about. Kids really do want their parents to be happy.
I related personally to this film in many ways. My own dead mother also chafed against the social constraints of her day, torn between her own desires for self-fulfilment and her responsibilities as a mother and wife. I am the same age as Polley (OK, five years older), so the archival footage of her parents reminded me of my own parents' life in 1960s and 1970s Toronto. I too am one of five siblings, the products of two different marriages, who remain close. And while I'm not the center of attention her mother was, I really related to her persistent hunger for the new and exciting.
Polley interweaves interview clips with family and friends, home movies and reenactments that were so seemless I didn't even realize until fairly far into the film they were not themselves archival material. It didn't feel like the traditional documentary somehow, perhaps because it was so raw. Polley lays herself out pretty bare and states in the film that her intention was to present all the different sides of this one story as a reflection on how we remember, reshape and recount the stories of our lives. In the process she succeeded in creating a moving and decidedly original family portrait that while intensely personal feels quite universal.