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Stories We Tell

by Leonard Maltin
May 10, 2013 12:05 AM
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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 look.

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.


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  • Patrick | July 19, 2013 4:00 PMReply

    Selling out? To make an independently released documentary that played in at most 70 theaters in any given week? And as banked a mind-blowing $1.4 million in box office? Wow, I was under the impression that the expression may be more aptly applied to something like the presence of Jeff Bridges in R.I.P.D. in 3D, or Johnny Depp in the Lone Ranger, or Bradley Cooper in the Hangover 3, or Jeremy Renner in Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.

    I chose to believe that Ms. Polley made a film to memorialize her family - her departed mother and aging father(s). Perhaps it is selfish of her to devote the time to exploring so in depth the differing perspectives on the events that shaped her life while some of the key participants are still alive. But in sharing with us this personal memorial, she reminds us of the value of spending time with family to record perspectives, shares with us the lessons of forgiveness and overcoming bitterness. It's brilliantly done and the conversations between director Sarah and narrator Michael Polley and the end of the film had me coveting the opportunity to have time with my father long ago departed.

  • G. T. Gray | July 3, 2013 8:29 PMReply

    While the premise is creative and the execution artful, I am bothered by a cheapening of a Sarah Polley's family story by putting it up for public consumption in such an intimate way. With three cinema professionals in the family (including her biological father) and other family members members, who seem all-to-eager to be on the screen, I cannot get past a sense of sellout. I think most established performers cherish their private life and their privacy of their families and would have no need to sell their family story this way. I book would have, perhaps, provided just the distance needed. But a grunge-documentary style airing of the family laundry boarders on tasteless in my opinion.

    As a story line, it is certainly substantive, but not remarkable. There are many families with stories more compelling that would sell.

  • Jeffrey | May 24, 2013 1:13 AMReply

    I've been hearing nothing but great things about this film.

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