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Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley’s family portrait cuts deep.

DIRECTED BY SARAH POLLEY

Prior to its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Sarah Polley’s third feature was shrouded in secrecy, described in the vaguest of terms as a genre-bending look at a family of storytellers. No wonder: as Polley soon revealed in a candid blog post, her first documentary hits close to home, returning to the moment she learned the long-hidden identity of her biological father.

While Polley’s admission might seem like a full disclosure, what makes Stories We Tell such a fascinating film is its rich ambiguity. Polley refuses to pin down the most ephemeral subject, her vibrant and enigmatic mother Diane, who passed away in 1990 and left a void that her family could only fill with a host of moving, often contradictory stories.

Those biographical vignettes form the backbone of this most uncommon family drama that’s more interested in disagreements than in group hugs. Nothing is sacred: not the home movie aesthetic we typically associate with reality, complicated here by Polley’s choice to cast an actress as Diane in Super 8 recreations of her youth, and not even the filmmaker’s project of reaching out to disparate family members for information about her mother, which is criticized outright by one of her subjects.

That the film can accommodate this contrarian opinion as well as the director’s own position, and still make room for her father Michael’s touching version of events, is no small feat. If one occasionally wishes there was less onscreen editorializing about the value of sharing this family story, that democratic gesture to her own family critic is nevertheless a testament to Polley’s humane vision of storytelling as an imprecise art, a deeply personal way of staking a claim to loved ones who may otherwise be irretrievably lost.

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