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FILM REVIEW: Stories We Tell

Categories: Movies

It shouldn't have worked, this manic mix of home movie footage, a Greek chorus of Sarah Polley's siblings and friends as well as Polley's father himself all sharing this sprawling story about the secrets of Diane Polley, wife, actress and mother of five.

Yet, somehow it all hangs together and from the many voices, tears, laughs and surprises, the audience gets something so much more than just a Canadian actress and director sharing a secret. The film is about all of us: how we remember, how we self-edit our own lives and what gaps in the narrative say about us.

I know -- it sounds like dry, academic stuff. That's what I first thought when I first heard the title of Polley's documentary: Stories We Tell.

Perhaps what Stories We Tell should have included in its title is the phrase "And Then..." because I haven't seen a doc with as many twists since the equally fabulous Searching For Sugar Man.

Sarah PolleyFilmmaker Sarah Polley is seen at left with her father Michael Polley in an archival photo from her documentary Stories We Tell. (National Film Board of Canada)

From the first moment, as Polley's extended family settles in, we realize this isn't going to be a typical tale of a life's story. This is a movie from a filmmaker keenly aware of the camera's gaze and yet at the same time doing everything she can to capture rare flashes of honesty: interviewees cracking jokes as the lighting is fussed with, those brief quips before the quizzing begins.

It helps that Polley's sisters and brothers are a warm gregarious lot and, of course, there's Michael Polley, their father and an actor and writer living out his own quiet drama. She puts his eloquence to service as a sometimes narrator, carrying us along -- except when she interrupts him, asking him (or perhaps us) to focus on a certain stanza.

Stories We Tell is crammed with evocative images, from the effervescent Diane caught on an old CBC archive tape to Super 8 shots of the kids (some real, some not so much) to Polley herself, who was on a film set in Montreal made up as a Neanderthal when a journalist called, ready to share her story with the world.

From that phone call came this: the Rashomon of home movies. The stories overlap, contradict and reinforce each other. Slowly, greater truths emerge as a kaleidoscope of emotions, love and regret comes into focus.

Near the end, Polley's indulgence gets the better of her as she doubles back to explain her own reasoning for starting the project. However, by this point, what she's uncovered is so much bigger and better than her personal story.

A provocative bit of post-modern storytelling from a director who trusts us to follow, Stories We Tell is a triumph.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5

Sarah PolleyFilmmaker Sarah Polley weaves together stories and memories about her late mother in the documentary Stories We Tell. (National Film Board of Canada)

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