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Family history weaves spell as it reveals layers

Fri., July 5, 2013

Sarah Polley’s documentary “Stories We Tell” begins as an elegy and ends as something completely different and altogether unexpected, a fascinating family history and an examination of truth in storytelling and the complexity of memory. If you plan to see it – and you really should – do yourself a favor and read as little about it as possible: It unfolds hypnotically, revealing itself slowly to us, and the less you know about it the more enthralling it will be.

The movie is a lot of things at once: It’s a memorial to the director’s late mother, it’s a strange and convoluted familial saga, and it’s Polley’s personal search for her own identity. It’s also an achingly honest and refreshingly frank film, and even if its construction sometimes toys with our own perception of reality, it’s always intensely sincere.

As the movie begins, we’re introduced to Polley’s interview subjects (or “storytellers,” as they’re credited), including her father, Michael, her four siblings – Joanna, John, Mark and Susy – and several family friends. Polley’s mother, Diane, who died in 1990, haunts the corners of the film in a series of silent Super 8 home movies that show her in her most candid moments. Or do they?

We’re told Diane, who fell in love with Michael when they were cast opposite one another in a Canadian stage play, was a bold, carefree spirit, and everyone remembers her fondly. But who was she really? No one seems to agree on what she was like behind closed doors, or whether or not her exuberance was a façade, as if she were playing different roles for each of her respective circles of friends. Even Michael, who narrates portions of the film, admits he was often ignorant to Diane’s true desires.

There’s more to the Polleys’ story – a lot more – but to give anything else away would break the spell of the movie. Polley doesn’t drop bombshells so much as she methodically peels back layers, revealing unexpected truths about herself and her family, and about the basic constructs of the movie itself. It’s modest in execution and yet breathtaking in effect.

Polley has been a steadily working actress since she was a child – you might recognize her from “The Sweet Hereafter,” “Go,” or the 2004 “Dawn of the Dead” remake – but she’s also coming into her own behind the camera. With the stunning “Away From Her,” the flawed but insightful “Take This Waltz,” and now “Stories We Tell,” Polley has proven herself to be a thoughtful, soulful filmmaker. This is her first documentary, and it’s as powerful as any great fiction.

As the interviewees come into sharper focus, as the lines between their individual stories begin to fuse, and as the pieces of the puzzle start to snap into place, “Stories We Tell” weaves an increasingly spellbinding portrait of a family coming to terms with itself. In the end, though, it’s really about Diane and her legacy, and how she changed (both directly and vicariously) a number of lives for the better. This is a terrific film, profound and poignant, and it’s one of the very best of the year.

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