Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell: Secrets and Lies

The Canadian actress-director probes the mysteries of her family history in the most fulfilling, devastating work at this year's Venice Film Festival

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National Film Board of Canada

Stories We Tell

It’s a wise child, the saying goes, that knows its own father. And its own mother. Diane MacMillan Polley, a Canadian actress and casting director, died of cancer in 1990, when her youngest daughter, Sarah, was 11. But Sarah Polley, a professional performer from childhood, blossomed into a fine young actress: in Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Weight of Water, Isabel Coixet’s My Life Without Me and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead. Wide-eyed and ethereal, the young Sarah was a screen creature distinguished by her intense attentiveness to the world around her; she embodied characters who saw much more than they said.

At 27, with Away from Her, Polley showed that she was a writer-director precociously attuned to the passions and tensions in a marriage of sexagenarians. The subject of that fine drama, for which Sarah earned an Oscar nomination as writer, was of a woman (Julie Christie) whose incipient Alzheimer’s forced her estrangement from her husband and toward another man. Polley might have been searching, in fiction, for the mother who had gone, too early, away from her.

(READ: Rebecca Winters Keegan on Julie Christie in Sarah Polley’s Away from Her)

Stories We Tell — the probing, emotionally devastating documentary that was, for this critic and many others, the revelation of the first week of the Venice Film Festival — records Polley’s attempt to “be a detective in my own life,” to learn more about her late mother and elusive father. She employs an artful combination of family interviews, reconstructions, super-8 home movies and portions of Michael Polley’s memoir, which he reads to the camera. Beginning her film with Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood’s observation that, “When you’re in the middle of a story, it isn’t a story at all,” Polley wants to find the “truth” about her parents and, even more, the way the legend becomes the truth in family histories no less than in film fiction.

The full story of Stories We Tell, which could be called Secrets & Lies, will not be revealed here; filmgoers deserve to experience the tale as Polley unfolds it. But a few biographical details may trace a suggestive silhouette without exposing the entire picture.

(READ: Mary Pols on Sarah Polley in Splice)

Michael Polley, born in England in 1933, studied acting with Albert Finney but pursued his career in Canada. Diane, two years younger, saw him on the Toronto stage and fell in love with the character he played; later she had to accept that the man was not nearly as entrancing as his role. They rekindled their ardor on Michael’s 1978 visit to Montreal, where Diane was appearing in a play produced by Harry Gulkin (who also produced the 1975 film Lies My Father Told Me). Nine months later, Sarah was born.

When Michael could not support his family by acting he sold insurance; Diane became a casting director. Pushing Sarah into the limelight at five, against her husband’s wishes, Diane kept a close watch on her daughter, playing a doctor consoling Sarah when the girl starred in the 1988 TV series Ramona. The same year, Michael took a bit part in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen so as to care for his gifted protégé. Within two years Diane was dead, and Michael, now 57, raised the fiercely independent Sarah, who, by her late teens, was known as much for her political activism as for being “Canada’s sweetheart.” As Michael said of Sarah in 1997, “She was at her best when she was out of kilter with society in some way.”

(READ: Richard Corliss’s review of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen)

Sarah felt love for Michael, but also distance and mystery. The running joke among her four elder siblings was how little she resembled her father. Stories We Tell chronicles the climax of Polley’s research, when she found the truth: she was indeed her father’s spitting, fighting image. She also discovered the restless vitality that made her mother a fuller, larger figure that Sarah could have known. Sarah’s brother recalls that Diane “walked heavily and made the records skip” and that “she loved new.”  She pursued adventure as rigorously as Sarah tries to locate “the way we feel about the story of our life.”

Stories We Tell is a poignant experience for the viewer and was more painful for the director. “Making this film was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Polley wrote on the National Film Board of Canada blog. “It took five years and tormented me. I didn’t want to make it, and I wanted to give up many times along the way, but I also didn’t want this story to be out there in the words of someone other than the many people who lived it. Now it will be written about in many other people’s words, and I’m finally at peace with that. [A]fter five long years I’m actually looking forward to its arrival in the world, and the inevitable mess that comes from a story being told and retold.”

(READ: Lily Rothman on Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz)

Audiences this weekend at the Toronto Film Festival and, with any luck, when the movie achieves a full release, will tell and retell this touching story. Perhaps those who saw Joaquin Phoenix impersonate a deranged, fictionalized version of himself in Casey Affleck’s “documentary” I’m Still Here, which had its world premiere at Venice two years ago, may be skeptical of another actor’s assertion of truth, especially one that hints at fiction in its very title. For the record, this reviewer believes Polley’s recounting. Moreover, she has transformed the secrets and lies of her own life into glowing artistic truth.