It has been a little over a week since I finally saw Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell,” the actor-director’s documentary exploration of her family and lineage, and I still cannot get it out of my head. That is not always a sign of greatness — there have been movies I couldn’t shake because of how awful they were — but it is this time.
I can say with some certainty that “Stories We Tell” is the best film I’ve seen in 2013, and, I think, one of the finest works about family and memory in recent years.
Yet it’s a difficult film to discuss, as every detail seems like a spoiler. I noticed, in the time between the film’s TIFF 2012 premiere and my seeing it, that almost every review or piece about the film referenced “spoilers” or included a “spoiler alert.” I found that rather obnoxious, but now I see why that was so important.
I think it’s imperative that one enter “Stories We Tell” cold — spoiler-free, if you will. But I say that not only because of the film’s central “secret,” which is alluded to in the film’s trailer, but because of … the rest of it. There was a moment that left me confused, breathless, and exhilarated, and that is the feeling that has lingered for me. Even discussing what Polley is actually up to here as a storyteller feels like a reveal.
Something I CAN discuss is Polley herself. Consider some of her acting resume — Atom Egoyan’s “Exotica” and “The Sweet Hereafter,” Cronenberg’s “eXistenZ,” not to mention “Last Night,” “Go,” “The Claim,” “My Life Without Me,” “Dawn of the Dead,” even “Splice,” which I despised — and then ponder her films as a director (“Away From Her,” “Take This Waltz,” “Stories”), and try to find another actor with that level of range, stylistic variety, and sheer ambition.
Personally, I have always found her unique, especially after her directorial debut, the emotional sucker-punch that was “Away From Her.” My experience with “Waltz,” however, was far different.
I saw the film at a critic’s screening on a weekend morning at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, and I was quite excited considering my love of “Away.” The movie started, and … I hated it. I mean, really, truly hated it. I did not buy it, I found the lead played by Michelle Williams to be obnoxious to the point of outrage, despised Seth Rogen’s character’s job (cookbook author), and about 45 minutes in felt I could not take any more.
So I left. It is easy to do at TIFF; generally, there is another movie across the hall. In this case, that movie was “Burning Man,” which I have called the worst film I ever sat at TIFF. Anyway …
Eight or nine months later, I noticed “Take This Waltz,” that received some real raves at TIFF, was airing on HDNet, a cable channel that often shows Magnolia Pictures’ films as “sneak previews.” (HDNet used to do this, at least; such films have disappeared from its schedule.)
I was determined to watch it again. Could I have been mistaken? Was I in a bad mood that morning? Was it possible I misread everything?
And so I did. And guess what? I was wrong. This time, I adored “Take This Waltz” — was gob-smacked by it. Things that I found obnoxious were still there, but they were obnoxious by design. The central character was a bit annoying, but annoying by design. And its central conflict — whether or not Margot would sleep with Daniel (Luke Kirby) — suddenly seemed remarkably profound.
There was also a scene I had missed by walking out — in my defense, I was not reviewing the film; obviously, if I had been, I would have stayed — that, to me, was one of the simplest, finest distillations of the rush of new love and its inevitable comedown ever.
It’s set in some kind of indoor carnival in Toronto, and Margot and Daniel laugh and hold on for dear life in a ride as “Video Killed the Radio Star” plays in the background. They are young, and in love, and life is beautiful, and then — boom. The ride stops, the music is gone, and harsh light fills the room. Beautiful.
Sarah Polley is, then, someone with real insight on love and life. Watching “Stories We Tell,” her finest creation to date, it is easy to see why.
The film comes to DVD etc. in September, and I urge you to see it — and to not read any reviews first.
Director Sarah Polley in a scene from “STORIES WE TELL.” Credit: Courtesy of Roadside Attractions