Don’t be fooled by its deceptively simple title or the hesitant, unassuming way it begins. Writer-director Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell” ends up an invigorating powerhouse of a personal documentary, adventurous and absolutely fascinating.
Unexpectedly moving in unanticipated ways, this unusual film is a look at the complexities of one specific family’s story as well as a broad examination of the interlocking nature of truth, secrecy and memory, not to mention the endless intricacies of human relationships.
Five years in the making, “Stories We Tell” reveals its secrets slowly, like an onion being unpeeled layer by unexpected layer, not unlike the way Polley herself discovered what she did about her own background. It’s not for nothing that “Stories We Tell” begins with a potent quote from Polley’s fellow Canadian Margaret Atwood: “When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion,” Atwood wrote in the novel “Alias Grace.” “It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you’re telling it, to yourself or to someone else.”
Like an exploding supernova, everything about this film expands outward from its humble beginnings, until before you know it you are pondering intriguing questions about the ownership of personal history, the function of art in telling the truth, the nature of documentary and how what we consider to be reality may in truth be no more than what we want to believe. Plus, we get to listen in as one heck of a dramatic story unfolds.
The way Polley found things out also informed some of the audacious choices she made in how to tell the story, choices that, like the particulars of what she discovered, are best left to be experienced as “Stories We Tell” takes on the characteristics of an unlikely thriller.
The 34-year-old Polley has always been something of an old soul, and if you’ve followed her career up to now none of this is surprising. Starting as an exceptional actress (in Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter” and many others), she made a memorable directing debut in 2007 with the Alzheimer’s-themed “Away From Her,” which received Oscar nominations both for her adapted screenplay and Julie Christie’s lead-actress performance.
“Stories We Tell” opens in a ragged way, with Polley’s father, actor Michael Polley, slowly walking up a flight of stairs to a studio where he will record a voice-over of his own devising that makes sense only as the film progresses.
We also see Sarah Polley preparing to interview a group of folks who turn out to be her siblings and other people with close ties to the family. These individuals are as in the dark about the nature of the film as we are — “I hope you’ll explain to me what we’re trying to do,” one of them says — and Polley soon makes it clear that she intends to be part interrogator, part investigator, determined to get on film the entirety of a narrative it will not be easy to convey.
The essence of “Stories We Tell” concerns Polley’s late mother, Diane Polley, also an actress, a woman with a contagious personality, a kind of ultimate extrovert who can be seen in the film’s surprisingly large store of 8mm home-movie footage living her life with exceptional vitality.
Yet one of the first points “Stories We Tell” makes is that nothing is ever as it seems. The woman some friends say was completely guileless is described by others as a practiced keeper of secrets. To find the truth about a person or a situation, the film says, you have to be able to step back and fit seemingly contradictory stories into a mosaic that more and more comes to resemble “Rashomon.”
In the mid-1970s, at a point in Diane and Michael’s marriage before Sarah was born, Diane leaves the family home in Toronto to take a part in a play being put on in Montreal. That decision turned out to be a potent catalyst for situations that grow in complications before our eyes.
One of the great pleasures of this remarkable film is that its surprises never stop, even when you’re sure you’ve seen them all, and its stories grow deeper and gain complexity. And what’s life-changing for Sarah Polley turns out to be life-changing for the audience as well. As the Pablo Neruda poem quoted at one point aptly puts it: “Love is so short, forgetting is so long.”
‘Stories We Tell’
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic elements involving sexuality, brief strong language and smoking
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.
Playing: Landmark, West Los Angeles; Sundance Cinemas, West Hollywood; Playhouse 7, Pasadena; University Town Center 6, Irvine