Movie review: 'Stories We Tell' a fine personal tale

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If artists pour their emotions onto the canvas and writers set their fingers flying, it makes perfect sense that Sarah Polley would want to make a film about a potentially explosive family secret.

Of course this one does involve her, her father and her late mother, which means she is subject, interviewer, director and detective all at once in "Stories We Tell."

The Canadian actress and filmmaker rewrites the rules of documentary making as she digs for the truth. She's like an increasing number of nonfiction directors who refuse to keep their subjects at arm's length or use cinematic sleight of hand with some re-creations.

'Stories We Tell'

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained

  • Rating:

    PG-13 for thematic elements involving sexuality, brief strong language and smoking.

Ms. Polley, nominated for an Academy Award for shaping an Alice Munro short story into the elegant, moving "Away From Her" screenplay, tackles the mystery that was her mother, Diane. Family members recall her laugh and sense of joy, with one comparing her to an "I Love Lucy" character.

She ran a casting business in Toronto but also was an actress and, at 42, was surprised and distressed to learn she was pregnant again. She was, in fact, on the way to the hospital with husband Michael to have an abortion when she changed her mind.

Sarah Polley was born in January 1979, and her siblings later teased her and joked about how she didn't look like their father. A brother had overheard a phone call that seemed to give some credence to the needling.

Sarah was 11 years old when her mother died of cancer. So by the time she decided to investigate the question of her biological father, she had to turn to others and start raising delicate, emotionally dangerous questions, with microphones and cameras in tow.

"Stories We Tell" is the result, with actors cast as younger versions of several key characters. At first, I thought it was remarkable that Ms. Polley had found such a treasure trove of home movies, but then I realized she had staged some flashbacks.

She shares surprising revelations with the audience, including some messy and painful details about Diane's past. No single set of memories can tell a story, though; Ms. Polley needs to allow them to fan out, to present the full picture.

"Stories," with its genre-bending style and approach, is uncomfortable to watch at times and feels almost like eavesdropping. You may wonder, as someone asks, to spare any hurt, why not leave things as they are?

However, family bonds may grow taut or slacken or change but, as Ms. Polley discovered, they can be surprisingly elastic and strong, no matter the pressure or close examination.

Opens today at the Manor Theater in Squirrel Hill.


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: or 412-263-1632. Read her blog:


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