I remember seeing the Stories We Tell trailer a couple years ago, and when my friend Ben told me he’d just seen it on Netflix, I knew it would be a good choice for my first Netflix review. He described it as “maybe the best documentary I’ve seen this year”– hmm.
I already had mixed emotions within the first five minutes of the film– I liked the feel of the sped up home videos, and was intrigued by the relatable imagery of dancing, laughing, a mother making phone calls. Shortly after, though, “Skinny Love” played (one of two non-diegetic songs in the entire film) and I was turned off. Unnatural. Strange choice.
The film centers on director Sarah’s family, who remembers their matriarch, Dianne. Half an hour in, the bomb drops. Sarah was fathered by another man, unbeknownst to anyone but Dianne. The rest of the film is a guess-who for the father– which actor did mother sleep with that time she did a play in Montreal?
The film is juxtaposed of interviews and footage, all including the family, friends, and potential fathers of Sarah. Early on Sarah asks her sister Joann what she thinks of the making of this documentary, to which Joann groans, “Who cares about our stupid family?” I have to agree with Joann here.
Tell is shot intentionally– each interview setting is pristine, and the angles are often unique and inviting. The film has some heartwarming, and heartbreaking moments, that are both relatable and escalated. Do a lot of people come from diverse, self-proclaimed “crazy” families? Yes. Do a lot of family’s have a member whose father is a mystery? No. Though this hook is only exhilarating for so long. The more the film draws out the what if’s, the longer each minute seemed. We’re first lead to think it’s one man, but then are told otherwise. As true patriarch Michael tells Sarah, “It took you quite a while to get to the moment of truth.” Granted, he was referring to Sarah revealing to him the truth she discovered about her real father, but I found the moment refreshing.
“Stories” is the first word of the title, and more than anything that is what this film is about. Stories we tell, stories we are told, stories we believe, stories we doubt. In a genre-bending spin, we are shown that some of the “lost footage” we have been using as evidence all this time is actually reenactments shot by Sarah herself. This was obvious in some moments (some scenes of life are just too nonchalant or sudden to be filmed, after all), and many find it fascinating, but for me it was disappointing that the story telling itself is, in the end, just a story. If you’re wanting to watch a documentary with minimal drama, one that won’t make you fear the world (Dear Zachary, available on Netflix) or suddenly grow angry and care about a cause (Blackfish, also on Netflix), this might be good for you. From it, I learned I prefer stories with a punch– one that does lead to fear or defense.