Stories We Tell (2012)

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Revelations of family and birth from the Canadian actress and filmmaker

Sarah Polley, who is Canadian, previously starred in Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, Doug Liman’s Go, and Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. She later wrote and directed Away From Her, about a husband forced to deal with his wife’s Alzheimer’s, which received Oscar nominations for her screenplay and Julie Christie’s performance. Her second film, a cute young people’s romantic story, met with less universal acclaim. Now she has turned to documentary, focussing on material she knows well and people she has excellent access to. Stories We Tell may lay claim to more Pirandellian complexity than it deserves, but it tells a rollicking good tale of and by two sets of siblings and his Polley’s discovery that her mother’s widower was not her father but somebody she had a wild affair with while in a play in Montreal. A wealth of old videos and talk and writing by both “fathers” and all the extended immediate family are seamlessly edited into a very watchable film, though it isn’t quite as unique as its makers seems to think.

The fun of it is that Polley begins with the story of her colourful, hyperactive, never contented mom, actress Diane Polley, who met and fell in love with Michael Polley, a British actor. Her mother had had several other children by her first husband, and walking away from that marriage had lost her custody of the two earlier children, the first time that ever happened to a woman in Canada. An account follows of Sarah’s late birth when her mother was 42 and Diane’s early death of cancer only a few years later. Still later comes investigation into the rumours that Michael was not Sarah’s father, but somebody she had an affair with when she was away from Toronto in Montreal in a play, returning to acting after a hiatus and revelling in the excitement of being away from humdrum Toronto and family life.

Once the investigation of the identity of her true father (and DNA verification) comes along, all other topics are largely dropped, or greatly subordinated. A resulting disadvantage of Polley’s method is that all the siblings and half siblings get plenty of chances to talk about Sarah, but not much development as human beings on their own. Egocentric? You could say that. An advantage is that both real and assumed father are highly articulate and talkative men. Moreover after the true paternity came out Michael Polley wrote a long, well-written letter to Sarah, which he reads to the camera, a text and reading that run through the film and help to give it humanity and unity. What seems less convincing is a final segment tacked on at the end full of highfalutin ponderings about how all this shows the uncertainty of the nature of reality and of people’s descriptions of themselves. It’s not like illegitimate children and cover-ups of same were anything all that rare and unusual. Nonetheless otherwise this is a very well-made and watchable documentary, further demonstrating that Sarah Polley is a talented lady.

Actors are used for re-enactments of Diane and Michael’s and Sarah’s earlier life, which are skilfully made to look like old amateur footage.

Stories We Tell, a Roadside Attractions release edited by Michael Munn and sponsored by the National Film Board of Canada, debuted at Venice and was also shown at Toronto and Telluride.

Director/Writer: Sarah Polley
Stars: John Buchan, Joanna Polley, Mark Polley
Runtime: 108 min
Country: Canada

Film Rating: ★★★½☆

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