Rob Edelman: Canada’s Sweetheart

Oct 1, 2012

In the heyday of the silent film, almost a hundred years ago, Toronto-born Mary Pickford was known as “America’s Sweetheart.” Well, today, the moniker “Canada’s Sweetheart” easily fits Sarah Polley.

Polley is an actress who has been appearing in films and on TV series since the 1980s, when she was a child. Then in 2006, she directed her first feature, the justifiably acclaimed AWAY FROM HER. Last year, she helmed a second feature, TAKE THIS WALTZ. Her latest film is STORIES WE TELL, a revealing, brutally honest biographical documentary whose Canadian premiere came with much fanfare at the Toronto Film Festival.

It must be noted here that Polley is the product of a show business family. Her British-born father, Michael, is an actor of renown. But the centerpiece of STORIES WE TELL is Polley’s mother Diane, an actress and casting director who contracted cancer and died in 1990 when Sarah was eleven.

Not surprisingly, Sarah seems to be haunted by the memory of Diane. She wants to understand who her mother was and, if you are a filmmaker, one way of accomplishing this is by making a cinematic inquiry into Diane’s life. Early on, a color head-shot of an adult Sarah is followed by a black-and-white image of Diane, which serves as a visual-- and, if you will, spiritual-- link between mother and daughter. Polley uses period television footage, reenactments, and interviews (which she refers to as an “interrogation process”) to tell her family story, and Diane’s story.

Our first impression of Diane is that she was a vibrant soul whose smile and presence lit up any room she entered, and one might say that STORIES WE TELL is Polley’s effort to keep her mother alive, to keep her in memory. But then Polley begins asking questions that, to put it mildly, are gutsy and provocative. Was there more to Diane than her cheery presence? Was she truly happy and fulfilled in her marriage? Did she have extramarital affairs and, in particular, did she have them while appearing in a play in Montreal? Finally, did one of these liaisons result in Diane’s pregnancy with Sarah? In other words, is Michael Polley not Sarah’s biological father?

In a general way, STORIES WE TELL is no-holds-barred as it deals with the issues and frustrations existing between married adults. But what separates it from countless other films that spotlight this theme is that, first, it is a documentary and, second, it is a story that is so very personal to the filmmaker. Not surprisingly, this theme of shifting affections is ever-present in Polley’s previous fiction films. AWAY FROM HER is the story of an older woman who is afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. Her husband must deal not just with her entry into a nursing home but with her growing involvement with another man. TAKE THIS WALTZ is the tale of an otherwise happily married twentysomething who, through no fault of her nice-guy husband, becomes romantically involved with another man.

I greatly admire Sarah Polley for her choice of subjects in her films, and I was completely fascinated by STORIES WE TELL. This is a film that on so many levels relates to each and every family and to one’s family secrets, whatever they may be. But while watching the film, I kept asking myself: Is Polley exposing to one and all what really is a private issue? More to the point, what would Diane Polley say about this film? Would she approve? Would she want her issues revealed on film, for all the world to see?

This, of course, is a question that can never be answered.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of  Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

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