Actress/writer/director Sarah Polley is becoming a notable chronicler of female sexual restlessness. In her 2006 directing debut, “Away From Her,” based on a short story by her fellow Canadian Alice Munro, an Alzheimer’s patient (played by Julie Christie) forgets her husband and falls in love with another resident in her care home. She wrote the screenplay for her second feature, last year’s “Take This Waltz,” which cast Seth Rogen and Michelle Williams as a hipster couple thrown into crisis by her infatuation with a dashing stranger.
Polley’s latest, “Stories We Tell,” is a probing, poignant, technically dazzling documentary journey into her own family history, and the repercussions of her late mother’s affairs. It’s a relationship drama spanning three decades, a detective mystery, an essay on the nature of memory, and a critique of our need to process messy human life into streamlined narrative arcs even at the cost of oversimplifying.
Diane Polley died of cancer in 1990 when Sarah was 11; she’s often on camera in old home movies repurposed for the film. A vibrant mess of an actress, her dynamic personality left her husband, Michael, close friends and Sarah’s four older siblings with tons of reminiscences. But the more they discuss and describe Diane, the more contradictions emerge.
In a sound studio, Michael, also an actor, reads aloud his artfully written account of their marriage. He shares his sense that she confused him with the dangerous, commanding characters he played onstage, and his chagrin that their “stale” marriage couldn’t live up to the fantasy. In the adjacent recording booth, Sarah asks for alternate takes and shifts of emphasis in his account, distorting his distorted version of events. “Really?” he replies at one point. “I was being so real.”
More witnesses chime in, and family mysteries deepen. “She lacked guile,” says one friend. “She was a woman of secrets,” insists another. It’s known that Sarah was conceived when Diane left her family in Toronto to appear in a Montreal stage production. But was Sarah’s parent Michael, who made a passionate conjugal visit? The handsome blond cast member whom Sarah somewhat resembles? Or … ?
Polley sifts through diverse perspectives, viewpoints and opinions about the mother she barely knew. At times she openly employs the methods of fiction filmmaking to mimic the slippery “Rashomon” nature of memory. In other segments, she bends the definition of documentary to the breaking point. Just when you think you’ve sorted out the secrets and lies, there’s a seismic shift. The revelations keep coming right through the end credits.
“Who cares about our stupid family?” asks one of Polley’s sisters on camera. Given her ability to make one family’s intimate story resonate on a near-universal level, a lot of people will.