Late in Sarah Polley’s intriguing documentary “Stories We Tell,” Michael Polley (Sarah’s father, a former actor) tells a touching story into a microphone. His daughter, interrupting him from a sound booth, asks him to repeat the last sentence again. Michael chuckles good-naturedly. “But I was being so real,” he says.
That impromptu moment sums up much of this thoughtful, unique film’s appeal. Sarah Polley, making her documentary directing debut (she previously directed the features “Away From Her” and “Take This Waltz”), embarked on this project to find out what was real: specifically, a long-joked-about family story concerning her mother, Diane, who died when Sarah was a child. She settles her father, four siblings and numerous relatives and family friends into interview chairs (we watch this process, like setting a stage) and grills them about the past.
What do they remember about Diane? What happened many years ago — or, rather, what did they think happened?
I don’t want to elaborate on exactly what Polley wanted to know, because much of the pleasure of “Stories We Tell” is watching it unfold: figuring out exactly who’s talking (everyone’s just identified by first names; it takes a while to figure out who’s family), piecing together a portrait of Diane from a scrapbook of impressions and home-movie clips, sorting out different versions of the truth through various shades of memories.
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There are a few shocking revelations here; one about Diane and another, later (watch closely), about the filmmaking itself. Both affect us as we watch, caught up in secrets long held, jolted to realize that things aren’t always what they seem.
Part of the movie’s pleasure is how comfortable the “storytellers” are with their director; you get a sense of a complicated but tight-knit family, going along with Sarah’s project because they love her.
At one point, Polley’s brother asks her what her movie is about, anyway. She pauses. “A lot of things. Memory, how we tell the stories of our lives, how we bring someone back to life …” “Stories We Tell” accomplishes all of these, and more; past and present merge, in an continual and still-emerging story.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org