(M, 108 minutes). Opens Thursday.
Sarah Polley's astounding documentary Stories We Tell is a difficult film to explain, which is fitting since the subject is family, and every family is a knot of obligation and understanding that only makes sense to its own members. It's safe to say that in exploring her own origins and her mother's complex life, the Canadian actor-turned-filmmaker makes the history of her clan into both a memoir and a memorial. Every question answered raises a new query, although not the ones you might expect.
The genesis is simple. Whether pitched as an observation or a joke, the Polley family of Toronto has long noted that the youngest of the five children, Sarah, bears no resemblance to her father, Michael. At the point when it stops being funny, or conversely, where there's nothing to do but laugh at the notion, Sarah picks up a camera and tries to ascertain the truth.
A still from Stories We Tell.
The person she needs to ask, her mother Diane, died from cancer when Sarah was 11, so the inquiries begin with memories of her mother from siblings and family friends. An aspiring blonde actress with a Californian smile who eventually became a casting director, Diane is remembered with generosity and tact, which only makes her youngest child doggedly pursue specifics.
As an actor, whether in Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter in 1997 or Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake in 2004, Sarah Polley was remarkably expressive.
She could render the tangled simple in but a few moments of close-up. Her two previous films as director, 2006's Away From Her and 2011's Take This Waltz, partially duplicated that across an entire piece, but it's a documentary (of sorts) that proves to be her most poignant and powerful work to date.
One of the advantages held by Stories We Tell is that it's a Canadian film - there are no histrionics, nor does Sarah place herself as the central character who pauses her investigation to ponder what she is learning or what kind of film she is making. The 34-year-old is seen infrequently but heard more, even if her brothers and sisters are initially bemused by her questions.
As a work of narrative, the film is deeply complex, aiming not just for revelation but also resonance. Events from more than three decades ago extend into the present, and Polley doesn't just document those links, she enhances or even remakes them. The primary source of archival material, her father's Super-8 footage, grows to be so specific that it virtually matches contemporary quotes, as if it was placed in a time capsule awaiting Sarah's arrival.
Many of those involved in the story are, or were, actors, and the movie asks when are we performing in real life and when aren't we? Polley has her father, Michael, record a narration for the documentary, excerpted from his own writings, and so this affectionate if reserved man becomes part of documenting a process he painfully lived through.
Sarah directs her father's readings, interrupting him with calm efficiency so that he begins to doubt her motives. "It's an interrogation process," she jokes, but the process does find candidates for Sarah's biological father from those who worked on a 1978 stage production in Montreal that Diane came back from pregnant, and it's by no means a spoiler to say that the director meets her maker.
One of the extraordinary qualities possessed by Stories We Tell is that with each step deeper into the truth, the story becomes more nuanced. It doesn't fall into the trap of simplifying people so that they neatly make sense to the viewing audience. The picture never condescends to judge Diane, nor does it stop explaining a sometimes difficult life once Sarah's paternity is established.
There are no absolutes for you to cling to. Because it's not a conventional mystery, it doesn't end with the discovery of Sarah's birth father, Harry, but rather finds present day twists to complement the resolutions from the past. The most fascinating is that the man Sarah gets to know, sometimes uncomfortably, views these events as his story, whose telling he should oversee.
"You need witnesses," Harry tells Sarah, "witnesses confirm you," but what he doesn't see is that how one person remembers something is never the entire truth. Whole lives can literally exist in the gaps and omissions, and Stories We Tell, once you've stopped going over it, will make you reflect on your own family history. The movie fascinates, inspires and challenges. It's a triumph of creation.