The concept of having an extramarital affair is not really all that scandalous or novel anymore. In many instances, in fact, it's expected to occur in the precursor to a divorce. However, when you add in the story of an adulterous wife (instead of the archetypal cheating husband) set within the landscape of Canada in the 1970s, the shockingness of it starts to augment again. What is more, when the memoir format is allowed to be told through the lens of a documentary--and told through the perspectives of each party involved--the ignominy factor is bound to increase. In Sarah Polley's (a famed Canadian actress--you might even recognize her as Ramona from Ramona) autobiographical Stories We Tell, she approaches the great mystery of her family--the question of who her real father is--like a miner of emotions.
Sarah's mother, Diane Polley, a theater actress with an extremely open, affectionate personality, is known as the first woman in Canada to lose custody of her children in a divorce. Because Diane committed adultery with Sarah's "father," British-born actor Michael Polley, the court opted to award complete custody to the father of her two children--Sarah's half brothers. In her second marriage, Diane initially seemed to be much happier. In spite of their vastly different personalities, Michael and Diane complemented one another, and ultimately had two children before Sarah was born in 1979. The structure of the film is perhaps one of the most interesting elements to note, centering around Michael's narration as told from the pages of his own journals. Noted by everyone in the family for being an incredible writer, Michael's lack of ambition when it came to pursuing this talent was one of the many things that began to irk Diane.
While Diane was eager to be in the spotlight, Michael was content to perform solely for those in his family. As she watched him become more satisfied with remaining in the background, Diane's acrimony further builded. To compound the staleness of their marriage, Michael wasn't, shall we say, putting out as often as Diane would have liked. This was, invariably, the catalyst that led to her infidelity while acting in a play in Montreal called, contrastingly, Toronto. It is at this juncture that the documentary shifts to the solving of a puzzle: The long-standing joke of who Sarah's real father is. The potential options are Diane's co-stars in the play, Geoffrey Bowes, Harry Gulkin (a successful Canadian producer) and Tom Butler. Though at first Sarah is certain Geoffrey has to be her father because of their red haired resemblance, he assures her that he and her mother were simply friends (though the humorous tag in the credits confirms otherwise). This leads Sarah to Harry, who, in truth, just wants to talk to him to find out if he knew anything about the man her mother might have been having an affair with. When he confesses that he assumed she wanted to meet with him because she knew he was her biological father, Sarah is completely floored.
With this new information, it is as though all the pieces in Sarah's life are finally starting to fit together. It also forces her to acknowledge her mother's duplicitousness in keeping such a significant secret for so long. The affair between Diane and Harry went on for two years, with only a handful of Diane's friends aware of what was taking place. As most of Sarah's siblings seem to agree, the true love of Diane's life was Michael, but he couldn't give her the love she needed or deserved from him. Such a sobering revelation is just one in a slew of profound themes that Stories We Tell explores. Not only a probing look at how each person's memory of specific events is disparate from another's, it also distinguishes that no story can fully be told without everyone's perspective (Diane, the center of the entire tale, died in 1990).
It's difficult to say whether Sarah Polley will be able to top herself after creating such a poignant and meaningful film. Granted, she's proven herself before with her prior writer-director efforts, including Away From Her and Take This Waltz, but there is something so singular and unprecedented about Stories We Tell that it will certainly prove challenging to upstage with whatever Polley's next project may be. Then again, to borrow the Margaret Atwood quote from the film, “When you are in the middle of a story, it isn't a story... It's only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all.” And Polley's story is still very much in the middle.