I have a soft spot for Sarah Polley, as I’ve watched her
grow up onscreen; my daughter and I used to watch her on TV as Ramona when she was 9 years old. She has
blossomed as an actress and, more recently, as a daring and original filmmaker
with an Oscar nomination to her credit (for the screenplay of Away From Her). But nothing could
prepare us for her latest endeavor.
Stories We Tell is
a remarkable, and moving, exploration of Polley’s family, focusing largely on
the story of her mother, who died when she was young. An outgoing actress who
had a bad first marriage (resulting in two older siblings), she then married
Sarah’s father, Michael Polley, a British-born actor who reads his own
narration throughout the film—offering his self-deprecating version of events,
including his own shortcomings as a husband and father. This multi-layered film
incorporates interviews with Sarah’s three siblings, her dad, and people who
knew her mom. They offer interesting and sometimes contradictory remarks ; one
insists that she was a woman with secrets. Sarah also confronts the actor that
everyone thinks was her biological father…until evidence, and a DNA test, shows
that it was someone else entirely. Each person offers his or her perspective.
The story is illustrated with 8mm color home-movie footage
of Sarah’s lively mom, an actress who also worked as a casting director. But it
turns out only half of this footage is genuine: the rest was re-created by
Polley using lookalike actors, with the camera operator “playing” a family
member in order to give the material an authentically spontaneous, first-person
Revelations continue to the very end of the picture. Sarah
keeps herself out of the story, for the most part, except as an observer, until
she recreates the moment she met her biological father for the first time.
While Stories We Tell
is a highly personal film, it touches on family matters that most of us can
relate to in some way. More important, it plays with our perceptions of reality
and the documentary form. It’s an innovative approach to autobiography that has
no equal, in my memory…and I found it absolutely fascinating.