Whether it is totally successful or not - and I think, in at least a couple key ways, that's much too uncertain for the movie's benefit - Stories We Tell is an outright heroic attempt to find a new cinematic vernacular for representing human memory. Taking the form of Sarah Polley's attempt to communicate the history of herself, her mother, and her family, with primary attention on one very particular story that remained secret for the first 28 years of the director/actor's life, the film is only partially about airing the Polley's dirty laundry in public. More than that, it is about how the Polleys, along with several Polley-adjacent people, have constructed their knowledge of how the past unfolded, and by extension how humans generally do such a thing. The only film I can think to compare it to is Prodigal Sons, in which Kimberly Reed used the medium as a meditation on her adolescence as a biological male, and her adopted brother's inability to reconcile past and present in his own life. Both films even hinge on similarly salacious reveals about secret parentage, though how that's handled is vastly different in each case.

What this film is about... oh my, the hard questions start already. Let's say instead that the form it takes is Polley's interviews with several members of her family, beginning with her actor dad Michael, who wrote and delivered that gives the film is rough shape, being his reminiscences, told in a poetic an diffuse way to his daughter, of her mother Diane, dead since Sarah was 11 years old. The rest of Diane's children, either from her miserable first marriage or her second, with Michael, contribute their own ideas, as do several friends and colleagues. There emerges from this a multifaceted, at times modestly contradictory portrait of a woman built out of the impressions and feelings of those who knew her best, of a woman who loved experiences, was passionate and lusty, and felt stifled by her marriage to a man she was very fond of, who didn't have the energy to keep up with her life and needs.

Thus does Polley begin earning her title by depicting the act of remembering as the act of storytelling, in which each storyteller's unique personality and perspective alters not just how they interpret facts, but also what they perceive as being factual to begin with, based on what they do or do not believe about Diane and themselves. And having done this, she doubles-down with an added layer of interpretation and artifice, by showing not a single image of her mother across the entire film, but staging re-enactments (and showing herself filming those re-enactments) with actors playing her parents and other people recounting stories of Diane's younger days in the 1970s, before Sarah was even born (naturally enough to the director "recounting history" and "filming a movie" are identical propositions), the ultimate act of multifaceted interpretation, as Sarah Polley turns her understanding of other people's subjective memories into a piece of filmed art.

The catch-22 of Stories We Tell is that it came into existence primarily so that Polley could come to grips with a major, transformative discovery she made about herself in her twenties, and it would almost certainly be a better film (if, admittedly less fun to watch, in a gossipy way) if she wasn't obliged to make her film about that discovery. Basically, after years of jokes that the redheaded Sarah was an odd duck in the Polley family, and that it made no sense that she was Michael's kid, she discovered that in point of fact, she wasn't - she was the product of an affair Diane had in 1978 while acting in Montreal. Nobody knew this; Diane herself couldn't have even known for certain, though her strong suspicions are clearly attested to within the film. Stories We Tell rehearses, in something like the register of a mystery with all the potboiler taken out, how exactly Polley went about finding out what happened and what it felt like to her, and it's captivating stuff, but not really what the film has been about till this point. I should describe it as, primarily a diary: Polley recounting a process that led to a shocking discovery and an interesting new relationship with her biological father. It's interesting, undoubtedly more to Polley than to anyone else, and that's kind of the problem with it. Instead of the symphony of subjective recollections building up to a fascinatingly provisional and always incomplete character study of Diane Polley, Stories We Tell spends too long in a place where it feels basically like it's trying to wow us with a real-life melodrama.

Nor does it ever recover: the longer it goes into Polley's post-discovery life, the more places it arrives at that feel for all the world like a beautiful, natural ending, only to find a few more drops left in the tank and spend another five or ten minutes in increasingly redundant scenes with her old dad and her reassuring themselves that they're still good, or her new, "real" dad trying a bit too hard to usurp her history as his own. None of this is at all bad - it's amazing, messy, real-life drama, and that's always compelling by its nature. On the other hand, it's also simply not as complex or unique as the place where the film began.

The thing is, one never gets the sense that Sarah Polley is making the film for them. It's clearly a film she's making for Sarah Polley, to help smooth out her own ideas about personal history and find a way to base this undercutting of her own identity in a picture of her mother that allows for depth and complexity in that woman's life which make Polley's birth part of a story bigger than "my mom had an affair". It is, in effect, the director going through art therapy, and realising that it's cinematically compelling enough that it would be worth sharing with the whole world. It took a lot of bravery and candor to put this story out there in any form, let alone in a form so devoid of self-pity, and for that, Polley deserves all our thanks and respect, even if the movie as an actual movie is raggedy in ways that hurt it both as a work of art and as a human story.