Sarah Polley puts her family in front of the camera in ‘Stories We Tell’

Sarah Polley's documentary "Stories We Tell" looks at her family's history Credit: Roadside Attractions
Sarah Polley’s documentary “Stories We Tell” looks at her family’s history.
Credit: Roadside Attractions

‘Stories We Tell’
Director: Sarah Polley
Genre: Documentary
Rating: PG-13
3 (out of 5) Globes

Sarah Polley’s family documentary “Stories We Tell” begins by invoking the central issue of historiography: How do we mine absolute truth from chaos? Can we trust the word of people, who often misremember or baldly misrepresent events? Perhaps more importantly, for viewers who are not part of the Polley clan: Is every personal story interesting to a third party? There eventually emerges a genuinely interesting twist in Polley’s personal life, which at first seems mundane and ordinary. Oddly, it’s the mundane material that proves more interesting, more cosmic than the stranger-than-fiction material that comes later.

Here’s the not-quite-spoiler (which arrives around the half hour mark): Polley, a child actress turned adult actress turned filmmaker, grew up thinking that her dad was her mother’s husband, Michael. In fact, her biological father was Harry Guelkin, a film producer with whom her mother, Diane, had a brief affair. Polley was not made aware of this until well into adulthood, and Guelkin spent nearly three decades without contacting his daughter.

This barnburner eventually takes up the majority of Polley’s film, and it’s interesting watching her and her family forced to walk a fine line and not upset the man who raised her. Everyone, including many siblings and half-siblings from her mother’s previous marriage, is extremely nice and doesn’t wish to pile more despair upon the already melancholic Michael, who became a widower when his wife succumbed to cancer.

But “Stories We Tell” is, oddly, more profound when it’s not about shocking skeletons in closets, but about something comparatively quotidian. The quiet and sometimes remote Michael, a (we’re told) promising writer, wooed Diane, a sparkplug and extrovert, who was attracted to his brain and potential. But Michael winds up putting his ambitions on hold for family life, and for insecurity issues known only to him. Not unlike Michael Apted’s “Up” documentary series, it’s a portrait of everyday disappointment, a reminder how most of us so easily abandon our dreams due to little more than just life.

This is not a depressing film — it’s a lively one, sprightly and playful, with constant cuts to staged Super 8-style recreations of scenes that were never filmed, but live on in a collective memory like ghosts. Polley’s fiction films (“Away From Her,” “Take This Waltz”) are heavy, if also often perceptive. It’s clear from “Stories We Tell” that she’s at her best when she doesn’t look like she’s trying.


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