Review: 'Stories We Tell' chases family secrets

Sarah Polley is filmmaker and detective in her family documentary.
Sarah Polley is filmmaker and detective in her family documentary.
Published Jun. 10, 2013

Stories We Tell (PG-13) (108 min.) — Sarah Polley is an accomplished actor and filmmaker who grew up in Toronto with a stage-struck, free-spirited mother and a father whose involvement is explained in this achingly candid documentary. Stories We Tell is an expression of emotions roiled regularly on daytime scandal TV shows although with much less composure and intelligence.

Polley directed Away From Her and Take This Waltz, movies about women finding comfort with men other than their husbands, and who couldn't be faulted for doing that. Her documentary suggests those characters were closer to Polley's experiences than anyone should expect, poignantly underlined through the writings and voice of an unlikely narrator, her father Michael.

Diane Polley died of cancer in 1990 when Sarah was 11, taking adulterous secrets to her grave. People whispered about Diane's possible indiscretions, and siblings even teased Sarah about her lack of resemblance to Michael. Nearly two decades later Sarah Polley set out to discover the truth, and kept cameras rolling as rumors became real. Interviews are mixed with home movies and re-enactments that are sometimes difficult to tell apart.

Mixed feelings by viewers can be expected. Polley is either a fearless fact-finder or needlessly stirring up problems better left untouched. Her strategy of having Michael — a gentle, dull man — reading commentary on screen seems cruel until it's clear that the words are what he wrote about Diane and himself. Family members and friends tell what they knew or suspected and when they knew or suspected it, their stories often conflicting as hushed memories do over time.

Plenty of secrets are uncovered before the fadeout, plus another nugget dropped midway through the end credits that may render nearly everything beforehand to be false. That's the nature of intimacies submerged so long then revealed. Reality doubles back upon itself until even truth can't be trusted, which is a more important point for Polley to make than her paternity. A- (Tampa Theatre)

Steve Persall, Times movie critic