Movie review: The drama of keeping family secrets

Stories We Tell,” Sarah Polley’s breathtaking documentary, brings new meaning to the term “home movie.” Polley’s ostensible purpose is to reconstruct the story of her late mother, Diane, who died of cancer when the filmmaker/actress was 11.

The film intersperses family photos and Super 8 movie clips with interviews of Polley’s father, siblings and family friends.  Their answers to Polley’s questions raise new questions that gradually shift the focus of the film. As “Who was Mom?” gives way to “Who’s my Dad?” the breathless viewer follows Polley’s heart-stopping journey into nature, nurture and identity.

Polley’s film belongs to the mushrooming subgenre of documentary, the cinememoir, in which adult children trace the gnarled roots of the family tree. Like Nathaniel Kahn’s “My Architect” and Jonathan Caouette’s “Tarnation,” “Stories We Tell” examines the binds that tie us to others.

Justly celebrated for her fearless performances in “The Sweet Hereafter” and “Go” and for her direction of the haunting marital dramas “Away from Her” and “Take this Waltz,” Polley knows three things: Keeping secrets keeps family members from feeling whole; if you want a happy ending, it depends on where you stop your tale; and sometimes there are more than two sides to a story. Sometimes there are as many sides as there are family members.

There are many edges to this jigsaw puzzle of a movie where pieces don’t neatly fit together. Given the sometimes overlapping, sometimes conflicting points of view, you might think of “Stories We Tell” as a Canadian “Rashomon,” a tactful stab at reconciling different perspectives.

Polly’s mother, Diane, a willowy, strawberry blonde with a Mona Lisa smile, is variously described as an unfulfilled actress whose career was interrupted by children, a supermom, a beloved wife, a faithless lover, a woman with a walk so emphatic “it made the record jump.”

Although the Polley home movies show us what Diane looked like, it’s initially frustrating that none of the witnesses sees her whole. Only in her daughter’s layering of these different perspectives does Diane begin to emerge. The result is an unorthodox portrait of an unorthodox woman, told in a storytelling style that suggests one thing and reveals itself to be something else. Just like Diane herself.

It would be a disservice to disclose the film’s many surprises. Most involve the withholding of information, obliging the viewer to rethink and reprocess what has been told before. 

The film’s narrator is Michael Polley, who raised Sarah. He’s a wryly funny and achingly unemotional figure who reads his version of the story in the third-person as Sarah directs him. The film’s startling disclosures are like a series of nonstop earthquakes and aftershocks that keep coming even through the film’s closing credits.

Polley is not the kind of filmmaker who tells viewers what to think — or what she thinks. So let me, an adoptive parent, share my takeaway: The father isn’t the man who gives sperm. The father is the one who gives love.

Follow Carrie Rickey at @CarrieRickey and 

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