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Sarah Polley, star of Atom Egoyan‘s The Sweet Hereafter, Doug Liman‘s Go, and Terry Gilliam‘s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, wrote and directed Away From Her, which nabbed Oscar noms for her screenplay and Julie Christie’s performance. But Polley’s biggest achievement yet is her polyphonic portrait of her own fractured family in Stories We Tell, which earned a rapturous reception at Telluride, where it played this weekend (after its Venice fest world premiere and before it heads on to Toronto, which is also billed as a North American premiere).
“It’s 20 times harder to make a documentary than a fiction film,” Polley told The Hollywood Reporter as people lined up down Colorado Avenue and around the corner to see her doc debut.
It’s a startlingly frank film, a bursting pinata of colorful family secrets. The star is not Polley, who does appear onscreen, but her late mother Diane, a larger-than-life Canadian actress glimpsed in an incredible wealth of home movie footage. The propulsive force of the film is Polley’s quest to sleuth out and track down her biological father, and to demonstrate cinematically the way that her mother’s passionately unstable actions played out in the fates of her sprawling family. The film does not sprawl. In five painstaking years of production, Polley and editor Michael Munn crafted years of interviews, archival material, and artful re-enactions of reality into a precise mystery story that ramifies as logically as frost tendrils on a Toronto winter windowpane. It’s a lark as well as a deep emotional plunge, and the surprise last scene packs a delightful punch.
The stories the family tells, often directed by Polley on camera, kept viewers on the edge of their seats. Considering Polley’s Hollywood pedigree, she’s likely to figure in the documentary Oscar competition.
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Tracee Ellis Ross