4/15/2013

Review: 'Stories We Tell' directed by Sarah Polley



“I’m interested in the way we tell stories about our lives, about the fact that the truth about the past is often ephemeral and difficult to pin down." Sarah Polley says those words early on her stirring documentary, Stories We Tell, in which the Canadian actress explores the many secrets buried deep within her celebrity family, and attempts to unpack her own feelings as those secrets are laid bare. So yes, it's a deeply personal vanity project, and Polley seems to acknowledge that in some way. How affecting the film will turn out to be depends on how much one agrees with her sister Joana, who rhetorically asks the question, “Who cares about our stupid family?".

To be fair, Polley gives us little reason to disagree initially. Constructed through what Polley describes as an "interrogation" of her chatty siblings and stoic father, Michael, what unfolds is a Roshomon-style examination of her late, vivacious mother Diane. A live-wire of a personality, we are introduced to the aspiring actress through grainy home movies and fuzzy recreations of her frolicking around in the Toronto cold with her kids, or making funny faces at the camera. Michael is on the other end of the spectrum, which makes one wonder how they ever came to be. A filmmaker and actor in his own right, he's not one given to grand displays of affection. The differences in their personality didn't stop them from falling in love, but it soon gave way to staleness as she desired more excitement in her life, while he was content to work.

While interesting, it's tough to shake the feeling that this would perhaps be better as an E! True Hollywood Story than a feature film. Michael recounts the particulars of his failing marriage from the comfort of a sound studio, adding a storyteller's flair to what is a pretty familiar, classic tale of mismatched souls who love one another but may not be great together. It's as the film sheds the simple trappings of a straight biopic that it becomes something profound and wonderful. Polley explores the intricacies of her memory, specifically those of her childhood. And in that quest for truth, she uncovers the strands that made her who she turned out to be.  Like any great memory, Stories We Tell grows and resonates over time.

The scandal that Polley uncovers made Canadian headlines not too long ago, but is still fairly unknown here in America, so to spoil it would be unfair as it goes in some unusual directions. At one point Diane, who still held dreams of acting, ventured off to Montreal to perform in a play by Harry Gulkin. When she returned months later, their passion had been rekindled. Absence made the heart grow fonder, and it wasn't long before she became pregnant with little Sarah. Diane would die of cancer years later, leaving an 11 year-old Sarah alone with her sullen father. And while they bonded and loved one another, there was a distance between them. A rumor begins to surface amongst the siblings that Sarah, who doesn't actually resemble Michael in the least, was actually someone else's daughter. Those rumors turn from family jokes to serious doubt, sparking Polley's quest for a definitive answer.

As the search widens, more characters of varied importance emerge. Some are more entertaining than others, but all provide a different perspective. Polley sifts through all of the accounts and takes them with equal measure, as if by listening to everything she'll somehow be able to ferret out one definitive answer that fits her recollection perfectly. As such, she doesn't play much of an active role, other than to occasionally chime in and urge her father to re-do a few lines. These asides tend to get a little distracting and bog down a film that could use a little trimming.

The film feels, in a way, like a natural continuation to her two devastating relationship dramas, Away from Her and Take This Waltz. To her credit, Polley never attempts to deflect the painful truths that she unearths, leaving them raw and open for us to experience right along with her. Even if the film isn't always as focused or consistently engrossing as it could be, it's rare that we're allowed to peer into one person's journey of self-discovery quite like this. If we're to learn anything, it's that all of us are more than just the sum of our parts. We're a reflection of the people we've loved and allowed to love us in return. Stories We Tell is a film that will haunt you long after it draws to its devastating conclusion.