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Stories We Tell Dissects an Actress' Family, and Storytelling Itself

05/21/2013 05:01 pm ET | Updated Jul 21, 2013
  • Brian Formo Los Angeles-based writer and frequen contributor to Crave Online (http://www.craveonline.com/author/brian-formo)

When I first started writing film reviews for The Huffington Post the editors put a "warning" under the headline of my first few reviews, saying that they contained possible "spoilers" of plot points. I have since tried shift my writing to avoid that tag.

It's tricky to talk about a plot and still knowing when to stop so that people don't feel a little robbed of a story, but I felt it necessary to do so. I love the craft of storytelling -- the gestures that become involved to enhance it, a deep sense of a time and place, what details the storyteller decides to focus on, and what that possibly reveals about them -- and -- about those who are listening. The purpose of a good story isn't to be a monologue, either; questions or critiques audience show engagement. Allowing others to chime in is key to enhancing the story's life. Not one person has sole ownership over a story they tell, and once it starts getting told it becomes ripe for revisions for the next audience.

The documentary is the closest filmmaking medium to how we tell stories. It can shift viewpoints more than a change in POV can in a narrative film: in a documentary you're being told something from someone else, and their manner of speech and attention to detail is likely entirely different than the other subjects.

I went in knowing next to nothing about Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell other than the festival praise it received, and that it was a documentary that the (then) actress, Polley had made about her family and how familial stories were told and altered. I knew there was some sort of twist during the filmmaking, but not what it was. I say this because I was new in receiving the story, listening in awe to its first telling to me, whereas, if you've seen the trailer you've been shown the narrative shift and therefore you've now become the listener at the table who's heard the shortened version before, but this time you're receiving the fuller details.

If you are interested in the craft of storytelling and/or documentaries I highly suggest that you see Stories We Tell. If you prefer dinner parties to dance clubs, I highly suggest that you see Stories We Tell. If you like dissections of the modern family make-up/shake-up, I highly suggest that you see Stories We Tell. If you've ever told a story a hundred times, gotten laughs or awe, but still find ways to inject new life into it, I highly suggest that you see Stories We Tell.

Without giving away the story, Stories We Tell is a feat in honesty and dishonesty. To tell this story (as she makes it clear, it isn't just her story), Polley interviews her family, uses Super 8 footage and appropriately, and hilariously utilizes scenes from Mr. Nobody, the film that Polley was acting in at the time she was finding out family secrets. Polley chose her father, Michael, to be the narrator of this film and reads his own written accounts of their family history. In a great use of theater, Polley's father being the narrator almost makes him the Greek Chorus, as he chimes in on family situations that should paint him tragic, but instead he seems slightly detached, like viewing from afar, because it's a story about more than him. He also might be in awe of how the other players have handled it, and thus lost the tragic figure that he could have been. Sarah Polley as director and performer, has also detached a little from her own story for the purpose of telling a better one. By making this film, she is not content to just listen, and in terms of narration, she knows she needs a strong voice, and will ask Michael to reread certain passages to make it clearer, and coach re-enactments of situations, and sometimes even breaking the fourth wall; all to tell the best, most inclusive, personal story.

There is one individual in Stories We Tell who believes that he is the only one that can tell the story in question (about Sarah Polley's mother). If the film has tragic elements, he is the true tragedy of the film, for the same way that sharing stories can bring people together, or make each other understand each other more, it can also distance people from each other if they don't perceive it the same way.

Polley has said sheisn't pursuing acting and wants to focus on directing. After this film, Away From Her and Take this Waltz, I applaud her. She is one of the most humane filmmakers, ne, storytellers, working right now.

In a critique of myself, I've found that I preface stories too much. I need to learn to trust my listeners and just dive in. But there's always some story minutiae that I feel the need to spread before I really tell it. Indeed I have prefaced this review, saying I won't tell the story, but I still have written about 800 words without telling you anything that happens in this film. So, with a twist, I'll just leave this on a hook: Stories We Tell is the best film I've seen so far this year.

"Stories We Tell" in now playing in Los Angeles, at The Landmark and Sundance on Sunset.

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