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.



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
Breaking: National

Peter Theo Curtis: American released by Syrian militants…

An American writer freed this week from two years in the captivity of insurgents in Syria spoke briefly outside his family's Cambridge home Wednesday of…

Local

FDNY debuts new fire simulator for blazes at…

The New York City Fire Department christened its newest, state-of-the-art, custom-built simulator at its training academy on Randall's Island Tuesday.

Local

Bronx cop saves baby who stopped breathing

A Bronx police officer is credited with saving the life of a 2-month-old baby who stopped breathing Tuesday morning. Police Officer Johnny Castillo, 38, was…

Local

Brewer celebrates Women's Equality Day with voter pledge

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer celebrated Women’s Equality Day Tuesday by pledging to register at least five women voters before the Oct. 10 deadline. Brewer…

Entertainment

QUIZ: How many English words do you actually…

Are you as smart as you say you are? Are you a word nerd? Take this quick vocabulary test to find out if you're a true wordsmith. Good luck.

Television

'Pretty Little Liars' recap: Season 5, Episode 12,…

If you've wondered whether Ali and Bethany knew each other, you got an answer tonight: Yes, and in a very tangled way. But many lingering…

Entertainment

Cymbals Eat Guitars Have Everything to 'LOSE'

At its most basic level, a rock band can be thought of as a family, a group of people selflessly devoted to a cause. When…

Entertainment

"Bachelor in Paradise" recap: Episode 4, 'Week Four'

Some things are hard to watch in a “Human Centipede” sort of way. Other things in an “American History X” sort of way. Does “Bachelor…

College

When are 2014 college football playoffs? (Schedule, date,…

When and where are 2014 college football playoffs? A look at the schedule, date, TV, time for the semi-finals at championship game.

NFL

Dimitri Patterson suspended only for rest of preseason…

Dimitri Patterson ended up getting just a slap on the wrist.

Sports

Eugenie Bouchard excited for 'rowdy' fans at US…

Eugenie Bouchard is sure to endear herself to New York's tennis faithful as she tries to win her first grand slam title across the next two weeks.

MLB

MLB Power Rankings: Angels and A's still at…

MLB Power Rankings: Angels and A's still at top, Nationals climb

Wellbeing

Who is having the most orgasms?

  Single lesbians report having orgasms more often than heterosexual women but both gay and straight men still come out on top of the climax…

Home

Jonathan Adler shares his tips for a great…

Jonathan Adler took a break from boogie boarding at his beach house to tell us how to keep that Labor Day party festive.

Travel

Most popular Labor Day weekend destinations

Priceline.com released its Top 20 destinations for the end of summer, including Labor Day weekend. If you’re heading to any of these spots, expect a…

Wellbeing

Working your way to type 2 diabetes: Job…

When it comes to type 2 diabetes, a stressful job can be as risky for your health as a bad diet and no exercise. A…