We all have a family story to tell, but we can't all tell it like Sarah Polley. The actor known for such films as Dawn of the Dead and Splice and director of quietly acclaimed features Take This Waltz and Away From Her has turned her hand to documentary with Stories We Tell, and it's been demanding attention from festival audiences around the world.
Unfortunately, it's one of those films that it's best to know as little of as possible when you go in, so there's going to be little in the way of synopsis here. Suffice to say, Polley's primary interest is her mother, Diane Polley, a casting agent, thwarted actress and extrovert who relished the escape from home life that came with roles on the stage. She died in 1990, when Sarah was 11, leaving behind a web of secrets that lay hidden for many years — until her daughter grew up and started to pull at the threads.
How a film with such an ostensibly narrow focus can be so compelling to so many viewers is one of those wonders of cinema. It just is. Polley has a great cast of characters in her life to work with (every member of her family is interviewed, at length), but the magic of this movie is ultimately in her storytelling. The film is wittily edited, warm and sensitive to all parties. It has a lightness of touch as might be expected of a distant observer, but all the unguarded reflection that comes from being intimate with her subject.
There's a lot of technique to it. Polley reminds us of her own directorial presence constantly: Her father Michael is also the narrator, and we see her barking commands at him in the audio booth. The grainy '80s Super 8 footage that runs throughout cannot be trusted. The nature of 'truth' is being examined, and not just because it suits postmodern obsessions in this case, it matters to people's lives. And yet (thankfully) these intellectual enquiries don't crowd out the human drama.
The result is simply the most enthralling, idiosyncratic and entertaining family memoir around.