AS much as I like Sarah Polley as an actress and a filmmaker (Away from Her, Take This Waltz), I confess I was leery of her documentary Stories We Tell.
It is the story of her own family, specifically her own surprising biological heritage. After being teased for years by siblings about the lack of a resemblance between herself and the man she called "dad," Polley discovered ex-actor and writer Michael Polley was indeed not her biological father.
Sarah it turns out, was the product of a brief but intense affair between her mother, Diane Polley, and Montreal-based producer Harry Gulkin. It occurred when Diane left the Toronto nest she shared with Michael for a couple of months to participate in a Montreal stage production.
Diane was pregnant when she returned home; because Michael had enjoyed a Montreal visit with benefits during the production, he had no apparent suspicions as to Sarah's paternity. That revelation would come later.
At the beginning of the film, Sarah's own sister wonders aloud whether anyone outside the family will be interested in this potentially tawdry tale, and I initially felt the same way. If I wanted salacious details on the lives of Canadian actors, I'd try to squirm my way through an episode of eTalk.
But it turns out Polley's investigation is both provocative and entertaining.
Much of this has to do with Diane Polley. The actress died of cancer in 1990, when Sarah was just 11 years old. But her presence, whether culled from old CBC footage, home movies, or artful reproductions of home movies, permeates the film with a kind of magic. I doubt a deceased woman has woven such a captivating spell in a movie since Otto Preminger's Laura.
Her own children remember her as a benign force of nature, especially when compared to their more placid, undemonstrative dad, Michael. But her legacy ultimately leads to a kind of stormy chaos among all her children. Sarah in particular is placed in a pickle when a reporter discovered the story of Sarah's biological heritage before she had had an opportunity to tell Michael about the revelation. Subsequently, there is a kind of competition among Sarah, Michael and Harry Gulkin as to who has the best claim to the story itself.
I would be inclined to give benefit of the doubt to Sarah, even if she keeps her own reactions relatively close to the vest. (She apparently doesn't have an opinion when confronted by the fact her mother came within a hair's breadth of having an abortion.)
I do this because her own films are clearly influenced by her family history. Her dramas Away From Her and Take This Waltz are both sympathetic meditations on infidelity. For cinephiles, this documentary gives rich context for her body or work so far.
But it also undeniably has merit as a story in itself. If Polley allows herself to get bogged down by the more ephemeral aspects of storytelling, she knows enough to leave us with a hell of a good punchline.
Excerpts of reviews of Stories We Tell:
"(Polley) has transformed the secrets and lies of her own life into glowing artistic truth."
-- Mary Corliss, Time
"The film is oscillating from intriguing to dull, revealing to repetitious, frank to disingenuous and moving to manipulative."
-- Rick Groen, Globe and Mail
"Sarah Polley's brave quest to uncover her family's deepest secrets unfolds like a thriller, one where the resolution is literally part of her DNA."
-- Peter Howell, Toronto Star
Stories We Tell
Directed by Sarah Polley
3 1/2 stars out of five