Sarah Polley's quest reveals melancholy 'Stories'

05:00 AM, May 17, 2013

Sarah Polley with her father Michael Polley in a scene from 'Stories We Tell.' Roadside Attractions/


Written By by Claudia Puig, USA TODAY

Love is so complicated. And family relations are perhaps even more so. Ordinary lives can be filled with secrets and lies.

Writer-director Sarah Polley intriguingly explores the vagaries of truth and the unreliability of memory in Stories We Tell (* * * * out of four; rated PG-13; opens Friday in select cities), a brilliant, thought-provoking documentary.

Her film unfolds like a thriller, in a way that’s similar to last year’s Searching for Sugar Man. But unlike that film, Polley’s is a memoir that also employs actors to play the young versions of her parents, whose scenes are shot in Super 8 to make them appear like home movies.

The result is essentially a documentary-plus, a clever comedy as well as a powerful drama, with an overriding sense of mystery. It works, though at times the viewer is bewildered, even left off-kilter. That is precisely the point. The line between fact and fiction is blurred, which puts the audience in a similarly confused state as Polley during her quest.

In a charmingly playful style, the Canadian-born actress/director interviews family and friends about her mother Diane Polley. The candid recollections of her brothers John and Mark, and sisters Susy and Joanna, describe their mom as a warm, open-hearted woman, full of drama and zest for life.

But as her family’s mythology emerges, it also recedes, only to be replaced by altered versions. Unanswered questions loom. The reality we think we understand may be illusory. This uncertainty is what makes the film especially captivating.

Diane, who died of cancer in 1990, was an actress, like Sarah. But she never attained her youngest daughter’s level of fame. Busy raising five children, the ebullient Diane occasionally performed in community productions. Sarah delves into these acting forays, particularly one that took her mom away from the family’s Toronto home to Montreal.

In her quest to uncover the truth about her parentage, Polley interviews the father who raised her, Michael Polley.

What are you, some kind of sadistic interviewer?” asks Michael, an engaging and witty screen presence.

Actually, she’s a compassionate and wise interrogator, as reflected by how expansive everyone is in their assessment of her complicated mother. Sarah could have been angry at deceptions that emerge, but only an effort to understand her mother comes through in this multilayered and engrossing film.

Diane, says one of her daughters, “spent her whole life looking for love.”

Clearly, she was a woman who left a profound impact on those who loved her — her children and her husband of 25 years, and several friends including film producer Harry Gulkin.

The family’s reminiscences are complex, sometimes contradictory, generous, wistful, profound and, ultimately, quite moving.

I can’t figure out why I’m exposing us all in this way,” Sarah muses.

But the reason may not matter as much as the final result.

She may be seeking to know the unknowable, but we’re fortunate to be there with her on this turbulent, melancholy and enthralling journey.