Monday, June 10, 2013

Stories We Tell (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Sarah Polley


Documentaries simply don't unveil themselves the way that Stories We Tell does. At once, a story about a family, it transforms itself into a story about a mother, than a daughter, two separate fathers before ultimately becoming a story about the unreliability of storytelling. It's a pretty fascinating, constantly shape-shifting piece of familial journalism, unafraid to blur the line between reality and fiction (even openly admitting that stating that trying to draw the line between the two is ludicrous). The film is directed by Sarah Polley, who is becoming a filmmaker so adept at storytelling (both narrative and cinematic) that I will likely go out of my way to see every one of her movies. Her 2007 film Away From Her was an emotional masterpiece staring Julie Christie as a woman fading from Alzheimer's; while 2011's Take This Waltz was an occasionally problematic, always singularly viewed character study of an unhappy woman (played by Michelle Williams), that dares to tell a story where a female protagonist leaves her amiable husband. Stories We Tell shows her taking a knack at nonfiction, and further proves that she's a master at numerous styles and juggling several stories, and a filmmaker on the rise.

As we learn in this film, Sarah Polley was born the child of actors, Diane and Michael Polley. Diane was an enthusiastic extrovert, always in the midst of doing several errands simultaneously. Michael was a sullen, soft-spoken English gentleman. The odd couple were married till Diane's death to cancer in 1990, but the relationship was not without it's ups and downs; Diane constantly frustrated with Michael's overall dour sensibility and his inability to truly capitalize on his acting talent. When Diane gets the chance to spend a month in Toronto working on a play, she gets a second both professionally and personally. Michael visits her for a weekend, which turns into a trip of romantic passion that seems to singlehandedly save the wilting marriage and when Diane returns home she is pregnant. Soon after, Sarah is born.

Sarah is the last of five (two sisters, two brothers), all of which begin to become puzzled as Sarah begins growing older. Her light eyes and red hair seems to look nothing like the deep, dark hair and steely eyes of her father. It soon becomes a common family joke that Sarah is the daughter of another man, one that even Michael is fine to take part in. When Diane finally passes, Michael is left alone with Sarah, all of the other children already older and moved out and for the first time, Michael has found someone to help him shed his icy facade. But as Sarah grows older, the joking begins to become a little more serious, as her siblings soon begin picking at the friends of their mother, seeing if they can get to the bottom of whether Diane had had an affair in Toronto. It isn't till Sarah herself is an adult that she begins to do a little snooping of her own, and Stories We Tell documents the shocking conclusion to the family mystery.

Like any documentary, what makes Stories We Tell tick is how fascinating the subjects are. Michael Polley, with his dry wit and general crankiness makes him a tough martyr, but Polley is able to find the heart behind the man she called 'Dad'. All of Sarah's siblings are strikingly different - in the way that siblings always seem to be distinct while always managing to be familiar. Her oldest brother, John, seems to light up in front of the camera relishing the best moments of his side of the story. Her youngest sister, Joanna, on the other end, seems shaken by this family disorder - her voice trembles here and their and her general recollection seems to be put through the prism of sadness. These are certainly not happy memories for her. Polley also interviews former friends and co-workers of Diane, including the infamous trio of actors that worked with Diane in Toronto - the three main candidates the family always considered for Sarah's fatherhood.

But the movie's biggest star is Diane, shown only through archival footage* [see below] and only two or three instances where we actually hear her voice. But her infectious personality is so fluidly translated that it becomes so easy to see how so many people could have fallen in love with her. In a family filled with grim insecurity, Diane's fresh enthusiasm sets her apart, and in a documentary format, she acts as the film's de facto protagonist. I could see how Sarah Polley could use the making of this film to learn more about her mother, and if that was her intention, I can't think of a better love letter to give to a mother she lost so early in her life.

I don't know how great Sarah Polley may be as an interviewer. One of the film's early sequences is a montage of her subjects being baffled when the first thing she tells them is to tell the whole story from the beginning. Journalism 101 teaches that you always act direct questions - you never begin a question with "tell me about...". So yeah, we're not exactly dealing with Errol Morris/Alex Gibney here. But that doesn't really matter, because this family's stories with its twists and turns, illuminations from different perspectives, and contradicting contributions makes a fascinating movie. I will not spoil the film's main revelation, but it's certainly nothing that you could reasonably expect, and while it could have dealt with the whole sequence as a scandal, it's treated tenderly. It's remembered with a nostalgic fondness of discovery that I've never seen a movie translate any better. I doubt I'll see a better documentary this year.

*I guess it's important to note that most of the "archival footage" shown in this movie is actually manufactured by Sarah Polley herself using actors to play the general participants and shooting it with a Super 8 camera to make the footage appear authentic. I, personally, found this technique ingenious since it ties in with the film's theme on how unreliable the truth is in stories, no matter how hard you strive, but take that information as you will.

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