Monday, June 3, 2013

STORIES WE TELL (2013)

Directed by Sarah Polley


When & Where:  Sundance Sunset Theater, West Hollywood, CA.  May 17, 2013  10:00PM



Following in the footsteps of her thespian parents, Sarah Polley first appeared in a Disney holiday film at the age of four. Michael and Diane Polley's little girl would go on to accomplish far more and achieve greater commercial success than either one of them could have imagined although she certainly didn't take an easy route. Ms Polley first become a beloved television personality in her native Canada at the age of eleven on the program, "Road To Avonlea" but which came to an abrupt end due to her subtle protest of the Gulf War at an award ceremony against Disney's wishes. She would go on to great acclaim as a young adult with her performances in such films as "Go"and "The Sweet Hereafter" but famously declined a big Hollywood role she had won in "Almost Famous" so she could do a low-budget Canadian project. While this hit made a name for her replacement, Kate Hudson but it also helped Polley completely avoid the romantic-comedy trap that Ms Hudson is still struggling to dig herself out of. After directing a couple of short films, Ms Polley would impress with her feature-length debut, "Away From Her" that earned her and star, Julie Christie Academy-Award nominations.

In "Stories We Tell", Ms Polley's first documentary, she turns the camera on herself or more specifically her mother which ultimately leads back to the director. What began as a family joke regarding Sarah's real paternity evolves in to an in-depth and fascinating investigation in to the possibility that this could be much more than just an arbitrary remark. The film creatively combines actual home movies along with recreating moments with actors to look like old super 8 film while Polley interviews family and friends to recall what they knew or didn't know about any deep, dark secrets that Diane Polley might be keeping hid.

A bubbly, wild spirit who loved to gab, trill and kick up her heels, Diane MacMillan was considered the life of any party. So many were quite surprised when she fell in love and married Michael Polley, a British actor who settled in Toronto. Michael was the complete opposite of his vivacious wife as he was more of a reserved homebody who didn't have much interest in surrounding himself with loud people at some social gathering. They have children and live a quiet, comfortable life but Michael has a desire to put acting on the back-burner. He decides to concentrate on his writing but not much materializes. Frustrated by her husband's lack of motivation in work and their marriage as well as her own stalled acting career, Diane goes off to Montreal to do a play for a few months. With her family left far behind in Toronto, Diane becomes revitalized as she is able to express herself on stage while spending the rest of the evening hanging out and drinking heartily with friends after the performance.

It has been said that absence makes the heart grow fonder and after Michael pays a visit to his wife in the city, the couple rekindles their relationship. Shortly after her return home, Mrs. Polley soon discovers that she is pregnant. However, instead of feeling thrilled and overjoyed, Diane is despondent with serious thoughts of having an abortion. Her reaction to this news indicates the first sign of something amiss but a last minute decision is made and our director was born in 1979. Some time later, Diane is stricken with cancer but after a valiant battle, she passes away by the time Sarah is eleven years old.

The question of her paternity was never a serious issue until Sarah became an adult. After years of feeling some uncertainty, she decides to begin the process in discovering the possible truth with all of the potential players questioned. Michael Polley reveals that he understands why his wife could have had an affair but doesn't doubt for a moment that he is Sarah's real father. This journey even inspired him to return to expressing himself on paper as we watch Sarah direct her father as he records his written perspective of their family history. Sarah's five siblings share their reasons for believing that their sister might have a different biological parent including a telling phone conversation one brother recalls overhearing their mother having with a mysterious individual. Sarah interviews some of Diane's close friends and even tracks down some members of the theatrical team on that production in Montreal with special interest paid to the men who might have developed an extra special relationship to her mother. What is most unexpected through many of these interviews is how everyone seems to handle the revelations as quite matter-of-fact and very civilly. Since it took several years to put this film together, perhaps it gave the participants time to process what was revealed yet I'm still surprised that no one displays even the slightest bit of resentment or anger.

Ms Polley has made it clear that she wasn't at all comfortable revealing her family secrets but also realized that being a public figure, her story would not remain quiet for long. Reporters had also become aware of the details yet somehow managed to get them to delay broadcasting the news until first she figured out how she wanted to share this information. In this age of over-sharing and hyper-narcissism, it would be easy to simply dismiss "Stories We Tell" as just a grandiose exercise in self-absorption. I almost made that mistake before seeing the film. What Ms Polley has effectively done is found a way to artfully tell her story that is brilliantly well-thought, richly textured and beautifully rendered that reaches far beyond standard documentaries. It is truly an unforgettable experience.