Sarah Polley’s unusual documentary, STORIES WE TELL, was released on DVD earlier this month. It is an outstanding genre piece and a fascinating study of human behavior. If one views it as a low-budget Canadian production about a Canadian show-business family, it might just get lost in the shuffle of Fall video releases. That would be a shame, because STORIES WE TELL has plenty to say—and a very creative way of saying it!
Now some may ask, who is Sarah Polley? She is a Canadian actress and filmmaker. In the late 1980s and 1990s, she was the slim blonde child actress cast in the title role in TV’s RAMONA and as the character of Sara Stanley in the AVONLEA series. Later she played Sophie in one season of the Canadian television cult favorite SLINGS AND ARROWS. More recently, she has appeared in a number of interesting but small motion pictures. I thought she did an exceptionally good job of downplaying a key role in Hal Hartley’s quirky and satirical monster film, NO SUCH THING.
Polley also is a very intelligent writer/director. Besides STORIES WE TELL, she has set down the foundations of an exceptional career with TAKE THIS WALTZ, a drama of relationships with Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen, and AWAY FROM HER, a brilliant study of what Alzheimer’s disease can do to destroy a loving couple.
Her most recent work, STORIES WE TELL, plays out like a gift for me. This film uses eloquent, personal writings from her actor father Michael Polley, along with extensive interviews with her family members and others, to form a document that focuses on Sarah Polley’s mother’s life and a hunt for Sarah’s true identity.
Polley’s film is candid about the clandestine lifestyle of her mother, Diane Polley, an actress who left her husband and children for a time to lead a separate life in another city. Some viewers may take this documentary as a breach in family privacy. If so, so be it. I certainly wrestled with that idea, but I have come to believe that this film is a work of art with a story that has every right to be told.
As a film, STORIES WE TELL is well-crafted, credible, and heartfelt. But viewer, be aware: Filmmaker Polley is a trickster in her subtle mix of real life and the imagined visuals of memory and oral history. There are the real family members and other persons who factor into the world unfolding, and there also are actors playing those people. Real life blends with docudrama, and the audience isn’t provided with a map of the real and un-real.
Is it fair? Does STORIES WE TELL play with our minds? Yes, it does. But it isn’t underhandedly done, and the result is well-worth seeing and pondering. Sarah Polley takes us on a unique trip through her family’s history, and it is a heck of a good ride!
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She teaches film studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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