She used to be one of the more alluringly damaged actors in movies (e.g., The Sweet Hereafter; a strong remake of Dawn of the Dead), but Sarah Polley has evolved into a director who can’t settle for mere feel-badness. That’s something to applaud in itself. While watching Stories We Tell, Polley’s first documentary and an artistic breakthrough, you sense a playful mind, even as she sets up her cameras for that most cringeworthy of endeavors: the family memoir. Polley informs her subjects (mainly relatives) about her “interrogation process.” They roll their eyes with complex affection. All then dive into the clan’s most painful secret, the one about Mom, and the movie soars.
Diane Polley, like her daughter, was an actor. In the doc’s blown-out Super-8 re-creations of ’70s and ’80s domestic moments, we see this blond libertine (feelingly played by Rebecca Jenkins) making a home for several kids and an aloof husband, laughing in her backstage dressing room and yearning for escape. It’s to the director’s credit that, when the subject of Diane’s infidelity comes up, we already have an absorbing compassion for her. But does she deserve it? The movie then springs a stunner of a revelation, requiring a rethink of much of the previous material. Obviously, that’s not grist for this review, but let it be said that in her three films—Away from Her, Take This Waltz and now this—Polley has gone further into the thorny subject of forgiveness than any of her peers. Her movies ache with ethical quandary; Stories We Tell aches the most.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf