Saturday, February 15, 2014

Polley Gets Personal With the Delightful "Stories We Tell"

Sarah Polley delves into her family history for her third film.
After the excellent one-two punch of Away From Her and Take This Waltz (which I reviewed last year), actress-turned-director Sarah Polley has ventured into the realm of nonfiction with her third feature. It's hard to talk about what makes the award-winning Stories We Tell such a treat without ruining some of the documentary's surprising revelations, but it is fair to say it covers the same thematic terrain of her fiction work – marriage, infidelity and the pursuit of personal fulfillment.

Using a combination of talking heads, family videos and cannily cast dramatic recreations, the film focuses on Polley’s enigmatic mother Diane, a woman with plenty of secrets who died when Polley was just 11 years old. Every player in the story – Polley's siblings and half-siblings, her father, her mother's various friends –gets a chance to offer their versions of the woman and her actions.

It’s easy to wonder why one would want to sit down and watch a documentary about a filmmaker’s mother, but the Polley brood is so intriguingly non-nuclear and each member so distinct that it’s hard not to get drawn into their orbit. Polley’s father Michael emerges as the heart of the film. When she begins to really pry into his past, he jokes, “What a vicious director you are” in a way that coveys he is both pained to dig up these emotions and impressed by the command of his daughter.

The film also makes some universal points that take it beyond the self-regarding piece it could have been. Initially it’s not clear which home videos are real and which are fabrications, but that only strengthens Polley’s argument about what she calls the “vagaries of truth.” There’s an often-unintended pliability to the way people process their pasts, and Polley captures that perfectly here.

“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,” Polley says early in the film. By going the Roshomon route, Polley makes some keen points about skewed perceptions and unreliable memories, and she ultimately offers a layered presentation of Diane by stringing together the sometimes dissonant viewpoints of those left behind. A