Polley's 'Stories': A Family Saga Strikingly Spun

May 10, 2013
Originally published on May 11, 2013 2:58 am

Sarah Polley grew up the fifth of five children in a Canadian theatrical family. Her father, Michael, is a transplanted British actor; her mother, Diane, was an actress and casting director. No wonder Sarah feels her family's narrative has the stuff of drama.

"I'm interested in the way we tell stories about our lives," she says in the film, "about the fact that the truth about the past is often ephemeral and difficult to pin down."

Prophetic words, those.

But let's start from the film's beginning. Polley's mom died in 1990 of cancer, and her father remembers bonding then with his youngest daughter.

"I felt closer to you than I ever felt about the other children," he tells her, explaining that he'd always shared her siblings' attention with their mom. After her death, "suddenly there was myself and this little girl. There were four or five very close years we had together then."

In Polley's documentary, that recollection is accompanied by home-movie images of them building a snowman — conventional documentary footage, you might say. Other moments are less conventional. There are stops and starts in the voice-over — because Dad isn't just a character in this story, you see; he's the narrator, too, which gives the film a very intimate feel.

That only gets enhanced when her brothers and sisters drop one story on Sarah they might not tell someone else.

"I remember Johnny saying [that] your father might be someone that Mum had acted with in a play," one brother observes. "I remember we talked about how you didn't look like Dad," a sister says. "And Dad joked about it."

Those reminiscences about an elusive mother turn into a search for clues that will literally explain how this filmmaker came into the world. And though that might keep another director occupied, it's just the start here, because no two children, no two friends — no two lovers, even — paint the same portrait of Diane Polley. Mum was adventuresome but trapped, says a kid, dutiful but wild, says a confidant, talented (maybe) and unfulfilled (sometimes) and by many accounts a shy extrovert.

And as her youngest daughter processes all these contradictions, an exercise in family navel-gazing becomes something more meta — less about the stories themselves than about the often uproarious ways in which people tell stories.

Including the filmmaker, whose previous fictional treks behind the camera — the Alzheimer's love story Away from Her, for instance — have hardly been conventional. Here, she trips up your expectations right through the final fade.

Seriously, one of the most jaw-dropping revelations occurs halfway through the final credits. All of which makes the stories Sarah Polley tells in Stories We Tell an enormously intriguing lot. (Recommended)

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Sarah Polley is both an accomplished actress and director. For her latest film, "Stories We Tell," she again steps behind the camera. But the film is, surprisingly, a documentary about Polley's own family. Critic Bob Mondello says he was expecting sentimental home movies, not the bracing film she made.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Sarah Polley grew up the fifth of five children in a theatrical Canadian family. Her father, Michael, a transplanted British actor; her mother, Diane, an actress and casting director. No wonder Sarah feels her family's narrative has the stuff of drama.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "STORIES WE TELL")

(MUSIC)

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.

I guess if you could start by describing Mom in as much detail as possible.

MICHAEL POLLEY: My memory of Mom is...

MONDELLO: Her mom, Diane, died in 1990 of cancer, and her father remembers bonding then with his youngest daughter.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "STORIES WE TELL")

(MUSIC)

MICHAEL POLLEY: I felt closer to you than I'd ever felt about the other children because there'd always been Diane there as well. Suddenly, there was myself and this little girl. There were four or five very close years we had together then.

MONDELLO: This is accompanied by home-movie images of them building a snowman - conventional documentary footage, you might say. Other moments are less conventional; this interruption, for instance.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "STORIES WE TELL")

(MUSIC)

SARAH POLLEY: Dad, can you just take that line back?

MICHAEL POLLEY: Yeah. Cut it off - pick up all these little mistakes, don't you...

(Narrating) He knew he disappointed us...

MONDELLO: Dad isn't just a character in this story; he's the narrator, too, which gives the film a very intimate feel, one that only gets enhanced when her brothers and sisters drop one story on Sarah they might not tell someone else.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "STORIES WE TELL")

(MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED BROTHER #1: I remember Johnny saying, your father might be someone that Mom had acted with in a play.

UNIDENTIFIED BROTHER #2: And I told them not to say anything to anyone, but then they turn it into a joke.

UNIDENTIFIED SISTER: I remember, we talked about how you didn't look like Dad, and Dad joked about it.

MICHAEL POLLEY: I always thought, she does look like me; got that little, straight nose. Yeah, definitely; this is all nonsense, but it's fun. Who do you think your father is this week, Sarah?

MONDELLO: And so reminiscences about an elusive mother turn into a search for clues that will - literally - explain how this filmmaker came into the world. And though that might keep another director occupied, it's just the start here because no two children, no two friends, no two lovers paint the same portrait of Diane. Mom was adventuresome but trapped, says a kid; dutiful but wild, says a confidant; talented, maybe; and unfulfilled, sometimes; and by many accounts, a shy extrovert.

And as her youngest daughter processes all these contradictions, an exercise in family navel-gazing becomes something more meta; less about stories than about the often uproarious ways in which people tell stories, including the filmmaker, whose previous fictional treks behind the camera - say, the Alzheimer's love story "Away From Her" - have hardly been conventional. Here, she trips up your expectations right through the final fade.

Seriously, one of the most jaw-dropping revelations occurs halfway through the final credits, all of which makes enormously entertaining the stories Sarah Polley tells in "Stories We Tell."

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.