By Gregory Crofton
I don’t blame the director Sarah Polley. She surely worked hard to make “STORIES WE TELL,” an innovative documentary, in order to honor and get to know her mother, a woman who died from cancer when Sarah was just 11.
I was ready to love this movie because I’m partial to personal-memoir docs. They can be especially powerful, playing to the strengths of the documentary genre, things like the passage of time and depth of character. I didn’t even like this film.
I blame subpar reporting from critics who misled me into the theater, critics who become a herd when they get their hands on a sexy story line. People do seem to love to love Sarah Polley and her work. I heard a few minutes of the actor/director being interviewed on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” not long ago. Terry Gross referred to Ms. Polley as “Sarah Polley.” “Just call me Sarah,” Polley pleaded. It wasn’t an explicit communication, but you could hear her saying to Gross “don’t like me so much already.”
Combine Polley’s likability with the fact that movie critics are prone to mimicking each other’s work and you’ve got trouble. Since I’ve started to write film reviews, I find it’s always tempting to make the story grander, either good or bad, than to communicate the complicated truth as it is. Rotten Tomatoes reports 96% of critics liked “STORIES WE TELL,” while only 80% percent of the audience reported liking it. I’d go with the audience minus 30%, leaving a 50/50 chance the average viewer will end up enjoying this doc.
Oh the critics proclaim this film is a blast of fresh air for cinema and documentaries. I found confusion, some drudgery, followed by dismay. It was confusing because Polley’s family members aren’t identified during their interviews. Also problematic is that the core story of the film is thin and grows stale because it’s drawn out for too long. More importantly I wanted to hear from Polley herself about the bind her mother had left her in, i.e. letting her grow up not knowing who her real father was. But Polley never turns the camera on herself to answer any questions.
Finally I had no sense that the title of this film, “STORIES WE TELL,” is anything other than an excellent title. I didn’t find Polley’s apparent thesis — that people experience and tell a story in their own way, the way they “remember” it — to be evident in the film. There was a secret in the family, yes. The wrong answer got tossed about some. Her father did nothing to help the situation.
This movie failed to work for me, but boy Sarah Polley is pretty and she sure has a nice name.