Sarah Polley on the set of "Stories We Tell"
Sarah Polley on the set of "Stories We Tell"

Finally, the unexpected auteur Sarah Polley nearly walked away with the Telluride Film Fest with her magnificent masterpiece, Stories We Tell. What is Stories We Tell? How do you even define it? It’s part documentary, part narrative, part fiction, part truth. It’s impossible to classify because Polley has made it up as she went along. She simply refused to follow anyone’s rules and decided to free up the frame. How revolutionary an idea to not have a traditional documentary — but to tell a story the only way she knew how to tell it, by utilizing her dazzling imagination.

Who is Sarah Polley? That is one of the questions that gets answered. Who is her family? Her mother? Her father? Those questions are answered too, in a way. Every character in the film is engaging, whether or not it’s Polley’s direction and choices that made this so, it’s distinctively so. When she intro’d the film she said she promised the actors that no one would ever see it. That might account for how natural they are in front of the camera, and how unguarded. But like Frances Ha and the Central Park Five, Stories We Tell saves its most effective moments for the third act. Here, Polley addresses the notion of what it means to love someone. What it means to be someone’s father — whether biologically or not. You might be inclined to think that blood is thicker than water but maybe that isn’t true at all.

Polley has mastered the art of organic storytelling here. There is never a self-conscious moment in the film. She has it completely under control throughout, so much so that she is able to pull off many magical moments you never see coming. What a surprise this film was. Where will it fit in the Oscar race? Where will any of them fit? It’s hard to say. The Oscars are designed to recognize established forms. The documentary selection process is bizarre enough that one can’t count on them to name the Central Park Five one of the best of the year, though it is surely worthy. Frances Ha is likely looking at a screenplay nomination, and maybe awards attention for Gerwig. But what of Stories We Tell? It isn’t a documentary and yet the people taking part onscreen aren’t actors either. It’s a gray area between portrayal and depiction. Polley will likely get a screenplay nod as well, and the Best Director category may be simply too competitive. With ten Best Picture nominees it’s conceivable that Stories We Tell could make the cut. And there’s still a very remote outside shot it will be beloved enough to make a more unprecedented mark.

Winning awards is a power play. Never forget that. So if you find yourself feeling sleazy for even talking about film awards in the same paragraph as art remember that one Oscar nomination for any of these women (Polley will be looking at #2) means more access, more money, more choices, more movies.

And one thing we need a lot more of are vital, powerful storytellers like these.


Sasha Stone is the founder of Awards Daily. Reprinted with Permission.