×

Stories We Tell

This playful and elegiac documentary is wholly of a piece with Sarah Polley's fiction work, and just as rewarding.

With:
With: Michael Polley, Sarah Polley, Mark Polley, John Buchan, Susy Buchan, Harry Gulkin, Geoff Bowes, Cathy Gulkin, Anne Tait, Rebecca Jenkins.

After two exceptional dramatic features, “Away From Her” and “Take This Waltz,” Sarah Polley appeared to be taking a discursive left turn with a documentary on her own family. As it turns out, the alternately playful and elegiac “Stories We Tell” is wholly of a piece with her fiction work, and just as rewarding. A shape-shifting study of her late mother’s infidelities, sewn from the occasionally sparring firsthand accounts of loved ones, it’s another delicate, surprising reflection on intimate relationship politics from the young Canadian. Only adventurous arthouse distribs need apply, though the pic’s appeal isn’t limited to the Polley faithful.

The title may appear blandly noncommittal at first glance, but proves more telling as it becomes clear that Polley is less concerned with family history than with family narratives, and how oft-repeated untruths and assumptions can distort or even fabricate memories. Similarly, Polley’s own storytelling is deceptively artful in its orchestration: What seems a happy shuffle of freeform talking-head interviews is actually sequenced into a startling series of reveals. Meanwhile, through canny casting and filming, apparent homevideo footage emerges as wistful reconstruction, as the director underlines the pliability and artifice of all her contributors’ recollections — her own included.

Popular on Variety

Polley’s point may be that all family life, in retrospect and in the moment, involves an element of performance — though given that the actress-helmer hails from a thesp household, hers perhaps involves a little more than most. While Polley’s British-born father, Michael, is present as both interviewee and narrator (thus contributing two perspectives, one spontaneous and one manipulated), the focus is primarily on the one immediate family member not around to represent herself: her mother, Diane, a minor showbiz figure in Canada, who died of cancer before Polley (the youngest of Diane’s five children) hit her teens, leaving behind a tangle of personal secrets that remained knotted until 2007.

The film’s opening reel promises a glowing eulogy of sorts to the evidently vivacious Diane, played in jagged flashbacks by Rebecca Jenkins, before the emphasis shifts to her loving but imperfect marriage to Michael. Certain revelations about the latter trigger an investigation into Polley’s paternity that gives the film its true emotional heft. Across a series of supportive but understandably bemused testimonies from her father and close-knit siblings, specifics are carefully rationed, perhaps to reflect Polley’s own uncertainty of her place within the clan.

Guided by a heavier hand, this subject matter could easily have made for a lurid, self-serving film, but watching this loving brood gradually peeling back their non-nuclear roots is profoundly moving to witness. Especially affecting is a speech by the dry, avuncular Michael about his paternal claim on the daughter behind the camera: “What a vicious director you are,” he says, half-chuckling as his voice catches and buckles.

Although it’s never mentioned, the fact that the self-discovery mapped out here by Polley was completed in the gap between her first two features is an intriguing one. Intentionally or otherwise, it certainly makes “Stories” a pertinent companion to “Take This Waltz,” which charted a married woman’s restlessness with equally even-handed candor. Tonally, however, the film perhaps hews closer to “Away From Her,” with Iris Ng’s airy, soft-hued lensing (no-nonsense digital for the interview sequences, elegantly bleached Super 8 for the reconstructions) lending the proceedings a wintry grace. Editor Michael Munn, meanwhile, patiently waits out certain interview sequences, perhaps heeding the Margaret Atwood quote with which Polley opens the film: “When you’re in the middle of a story, it isn’t a story at all.”

Stories We Tell

Canada

Production: A National Film Board of Canada presentation. (International sales: National Film Board of Canada, Montreal.) Produced by Anita Lee. Executive producer, Silva Basmajian. Directed, written by Sarah Polley.

Crew: Camera (color, HD, Super 8), Iris Ng; editor, Michael Munn; production designer, Lea Carlson; costume designer, Sarah Armstrong; sound, Sanjay Mehta; casting, John Buchan, Jason Knight. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Venice Days), Aug. 29, 2012. Running time: 108 MIN.

Cast: With: Michael Polley, Sarah Polley, Mark Polley, John Buchan, Susy Buchan, Harry Gulkin, Geoff Bowes, Cathy Gulkin, Anne Tait, Rebecca Jenkins.

More Scene

  • Logan Lerman Jordan Peele Al Pacino

    Al Pacino and Carol Kane Had a ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ Reunion on the ‘Hunters’ Set

    Nearly 45 years after Al Pacino and Carol Kane appeared in Sidney Lumet’s classic film “Dog Day Afternoon,” an Amazon Prime Video series about Nazi-hunters in 1977 New York City has brought them back together. Go figure. “I’m proud to be working with him again,” Kane told Variety at the “Hunters” premiere on Wednesday night [...]

  • Anya Taylor Joy Emma Premiere

    Anya Taylor-Joy on Playing Jane Austen's Clever, Callous Protagonist in 'Emma'

    It was an evening of elegance at the Los Angeles premiere of Focus Features’ “Emma” on Tuesday night. The red carpet was lined with pastel floral arrangements at the DGA Theater, priming visitors to be transported to the ornate pageantry of Georgian-era England, as depicted in this new adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic tale. Anya [...]

  • Tom Holland Chris Pratt Onward Premiere

    Tom Holland and Chris Pratt Show Off Real-Life Bond at Pixar's 'Onward' Premiere

    Pixar’s new movie “Onward” marks a reunion of sorts for Tom Holland and Chris Pratt. The two actors, who both have ties to Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe and most recently teamed in “Avengers: Endgame” as Spider-Man and Star-Lord, play brothers in the animated fantasy adventure. Their friendship has become a highlight of “Onward’s” promotional tour [...]

  • Da’Vine Joy Randolph

    Da’Vine Joy Randolph Praises Hulu's 'High Fidelity' for Telling a Realistic New York Story

    If HBO’s “Girls” characterized a certain type of young, disaffected millennial, fumbling cluelessly around a gentrifying Brooklyn, and if “Sex and the City” used Manhattan as a tantalizing playground for a class of well-connected, glamorous and decidedly 90s-bound women, both shows had one thing in common: they were painfully, inevitably white. “We’re gonna fix that!,” [...]

  • Harrison Ford Call of the Wild

    Why Harrison Ford Wanted to Play John Thornton in ‘The Call of the Wild’

    Joining legends like Charlton Heston and Clarke Gable, who have played the role of John Thornton in “The Call of the Wild,” Harrison Ford now stands next to a CGI-enhanced version of the dog named Buck in the latest adaptation of Jack London’s classic 1903 novel. “I thought the film has a lot to say [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content