It feels fitting to begin a review of Sarah Polley’s deeply personal, familially chatty, fourth-wall-shattering documentary Stories We Tell by telling you that Polley’s mom Diane looks freakishly, disorientingly like my own mom. Not the mom I know, but the one I have never known—the person she was before I came along. I know she must have existed. I know she had great hair; I know she traveled to countries that I have never visited, and owned pets I’ve never met. But when I hold these facts up to the light, they feel impersonal and flimsy, a handful of conjectures culled from fading pictures in the first few pages of the family photo album.
Stories We Tell is so immersive and so fluent in the universal grammar of families that—regardless of how much your mom looks like Diane Polley—you will probably start mixing up the Polley family’s memories with your own. There is, for example, some crackling Super 8 footage of Diane gabbing away on the phone, holding one finger up to the nagging cameraperson (much of the film’s b-roll comes from the fact that Diane’s husband, the British actor Michael Polley, was a prolific home movie-maker), and mouthing something along the lines of “I’ll be off in one more minute!” (Sarah then cuts to one of Diane’s own sons, now grown, doing his take on this move, clearly one of Diane’s signatures.) It brought me back, vividly, to a recurring scene so inconsequential I hadn’t thought of it in years: My own (usually hyper-attentive) mom on the kitchen phone, chatting with a friend or family member and holding up that same finger, giving my little sister and I that same loving but visibly imploring One more minute? look. But we won’t give her even that. We are stomping on the linoleum, tugging on her pant legs, and I am putting my newly acquired command of the alphabet to good use by scribbling on a memo pad: “MOM GET OFF THE FONE.” My memory then zipped to a scene that took place about 16 years later in that same kitchen, which—like my mother’s hair—had gone through a few full cycles of remodeling. I had just graduated from college and moved home for a couple of months of flailing and thinking too much. One afternoon, as soon as I heard my mom turn on the shower upstairs, I crept into the kitchen to swipe out of the cupboard one of the Joni Mitchell CDs that I had spent my entire adolescence pretending to hate because of her love for it. [...]