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.