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Stories We Tell

Stories We Tell: Venice Review

3:41 PM PDT 8/30/2012 by Neil Young

The Bottom Line

Canadian documentary skilfully deploys some ambitious creative gambits to explore the director's own family background.

Director/screenwriter

Sarah Polley

Actress-turned-director Sarah Polley delves deep into the complex history of her own immediate family in an unorthodox documentary selected for Venice and Toronto.

VENICE -- After establishing herself as a writer-director with 2006's double Oscar-nominated Away From Her and last year's followup Take This Waltz, Canadian child-star-turned-actress Sarah Polley now makes an audacious leap into autobiographical documentary with the long-gestating Stories We Tell. Making very public a long-buried family secret regarding Polley's origins, this playfully complex and gently slippery analysis of memory and personal narrative manages to engage us in what's essentially the private business, some might even say the dirty laundry, of total strangers.

Debuting at Venice days before its North American premiere in Toronto, the picture's sleight-of-hand structure and lurid autobiographical aspects are talking-points that could translate to decent arthouse box-office in Canada. Abroad, Polley's enduringly cultish status as a performer and the steady success of her two previous directorial outings bode well for both distribution and small-screen sales. Further festival exposure is a given.

As in her previous screenplays, Polley's focus is squarely on a married couple coping with various crises in their relationship over a period of time. Here that couple happen to be her own parents -- her mother Diane and the man who may or may not have been her biological father, Michael. Diane died in 1990 when Polley was just 11, but had already been labeled "Canada's Sweetheart" thanks to TV smash Road to Avonlea, in addition to high-profile roles in films such as Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988).

Stories We Tell makes little mention of Polley Jr.'s remarkable precocity, and is instead largely an oral biography of thespian pair Michael and Diane, much of it narrated by salty septuagenarian Michael himself from his own writings. Various family-members and friends are also on hand to chip in with their talking-head reminiscences and perspectives, in a picture which unpretentiously deconstructs its own assemblage by means of frequent cutaways to Sarah "directing" her dad's vocal performance.

Polley and editor Michael Munn also delve into a stunningly comprehensive 8mm archive of home-movie footage chronicling Michael and Diane's professional and personal lives in the Canadian theater world of the 1970s. Indeed, so exhaustively are such doings recorded by these unidentified camerapersons that many viewers will start to intuit that all isn't quite what it seems. It turns out that there some degree of "fabrication" here, one which for a time this casts doubt upon the veracity of everything else on view. Could the whole project actually be some cruelly elaborate, rug-pulling game with audience expectations and prurient curiosity?

Polley's overall vision and concept, however, ultimately prove sufficiently strong to support the considerable degrees of ambiguity which she riskily deploys. This is also in no small part due to the outstanding technical assistance she receives from offscreen collaborators including cinematographer Iris Ng, costume-designer Sarah Armstrong, art director Lea Carlson, hairstylist Josie Stewart and casting-directors John Buchan and Jason Knight. But specifying exactly why and how these folk, along with actress Diane Jenkins, are so crucial would spoil the delicately unfolding narrative pattern Polley has conceived, one whose impact is inversely proportional to the viewer's degree of foreknowledge.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Days)
Production company: National Film Board of Canada
Director/screenwriter: Sarah Polley
Producer: Anita Lee
Executive producer: Silva Basmajian
Director of photography: Iris Ng
Art director: Lea Carlson
Music: Jonathan Goldsmith

Costume designer: Sarah Armstrong
Editor: Michael Munn
Sales agent: National Film Board of Canada, Montreal
No MPAA rating, 109 minutes