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'Stories We Tell' focuses on a family's varied versions of their history

'Stories We Tell' is complicated and examines how we tell the story of our own lives.

By Peter RainerFilm critic / May 17, 2013

'Stories We Tell' is directed by Sarah Polley.

Ken Woroner/Roadside Attractions/AP

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The Canadian actress and director Sarah Polley set out to make a straightforward documentary about her mother, Diane, who died when she was 11, but by the time “Stories We Tell” was finished five years later, it had become unclassifiable.

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At the heart of the film is a revelation about Polley’s parentage, specifically her biological father. Although much of this material is available online (not to mention in some advance reviews), I’ll tiptoe around the details in order to allow readers a surprise similar to my own.

This, of course, means making a review of this movie an exercise in obfuscation, but then again, that’s my problem, not Polley’s.

Although Polley is examining her mother’s past – through the use of interviews with her extended family, four siblings, and mother’s friends, plus old photos and recordings and Super 8-mm movies – what she is actually doing is attempting to sort out the real from the anecdotal or merely mythic. Her film, as its title implies, is really about the nature of storytelling itself, but not in a dry, academic way.

Polley filmed extensive interviews with each of her siblings and her father, Michael, an English-born actor who met her mother, a sometime actress, in Toronto. Michael actually narrates much of the film, in recording sessions directed by Polley based on his written memoirs.

What Polley doesn’t provide is equally prominent. She does not, for example, offer much back story about Diane’s childhood or upbringing. It’s not even clear if she was a talented actress, although, as the film unravels its mysteries, it’s obvious she had a gift for covertness. We also don’t get from Polley any of her own responses to the family stories as they coalesce. Although we often see her filming the proceedings, in most other ways she keeps herself out of it, and this is unusual for this “personal” documentary genre.

In some ways, I wish she had inserted more of herself, as opposed to her questing spirit, into this film. By masking her emotional connection to the material with the facade of “objectivity,” she imparts a clinical, almost voyeuristic uncomfortability to the proceedings. It’s the opposite of narcissism – or is it? As a filmmaker, Polley proves to be as devious as any detective-story deviser. All these meta-documentary machinations are fascinating, but given the subject matter, I kept wondering whether the film would have been any the worse if it was told in the deeply intimate, clear-ahead manner of a documentarian like Ross McElwee. Experimentation is not always all it’s cracked up to be.

Polley was right to follow her instincts, though, in not attempting to tie everything up. She recognizes that family histories are necessarily contradictory, crazymaking, and essentially unfathomable. And so, for a storyteller, the question here becomes, How do you want to tell the story of your life? Given the fact that we will always get a lot of things wrong, how do you convert that wrongness into a higher kind of truth? “Stories We Tell” is maddeningly complicated, but honestly so. It honors Polley’s disquiet. Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for thematic elements involving sexuality, brief strong language, and smoking.)

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