Movie review: Sarah Polley has a good story to tell about her family

MCCLATCHY-TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICEJuly 12, 2013 

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Director and actress Sarah Polley uses this still of her and the father who raised her in “Stories We Tell,” a film that explores her personal biography.

  • STORIES WE TELL

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    Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements involving sexuality, brief strong language and smoking. Starring: Michael Polley, Mark Polley, Harry Gulkin. Director: Sarah Polley. Running time: 108 minutes. Theaters: Flicks.

Canadian actress ("Splice") turned director ("Away From Her") Sarah Polley appears to engage in a bout of navel gazing with her new documentary, "Stories We Tell."

It's about her late mother, and she assembles her siblings and other relatives and family friends for "an interrogation," as they recollect their memories of her in building a sometimes-contradictory portrait of a woman who died when Sarah was a child.

When a sister blurts out, "Who cares about our family?" she might be speaking for the audience if this were a lesser film.

Polley is getting at something deeper, at who "owns" a story, at the impact of point of view, editing and biases. And as "Stories We Tell" gets deeper into this saga, the jaw-dropping revelations aren't just ours, they're Sarah's. She didn't know this woman at all.

Her aged actor father Michael narrates from a long, writerly biography of Diane, a vivacious actress he met, married and worked with on the Canadian stage. As their family started, Michael had to give up the stage and go into insurance to support them, which seemed to frustrate both him and his wife.

Others talk of the stoic and passive Michael and the "good-time Charlie" Diane was. They were a mismatched pair if ever there were one. And as Michael vows to tell "the whole story," as another interviewee reminds Sarah that "the function of art is to find the truth," and as Sarah herself finally discovers the connecting theme of her film - memory, and the way we organize it to tell the stories of our lives - "Stories We Tell" transcends navel gazing and reaches something bigger and broader.

Polley uses old home movies, interviews and cleverly staged recreations of home movies that blend in seamlessly with the real thing to capture a dynamic portrait of her mom, whose bubbly personality hid a lot of personal demons.

She is blessed in having her father, often shot simply in a recording studio, narrating from his book "the entire story." And with each little revelation of family history - how close Sarah, the baby of the family, came to being aborted, for instance - the tale grows more complicated, more compelling and more complete.

It goes on too long, but this is personal essay filmmaking at its best, one that passes that ultimate test of such self-involved projects.

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