Thursday, May 9, 2013

Sarah Polley's STORIES WE TELL: an objet d'art deep with meaning, feeling and justice

We're viewing more and more of what some of us call hybrid documentaries these days, films that, among other unusual combination, sometimes offer up an actual, real-life situation while using actors to fill in the past and some of the blanks that come from characters either deceased or unwilling/unable to "perform." Sarah Polley's hugely moving, surprising and entertaining STORIES WE TELL is one such film, and it is also the best yet in this new/old genre. (Flaherty's Nanook of the North, from 1922, was supposedly one such hybrid.)

What makes Ms Polley's film so special (that's she, shown at right) -- and also, it seems to me, so exquisitely Canadian -- is her search for decency and justice, along with "truth" and all the facts and fiction involved in arriving at that truth. Polley has long been a lovely actress and one of my personal favorites. She's not the most beautiful or revelatory or shocking or unusual. But she's always honest: one of those in-the-moment performers who doesn't hit a false note and is perfectly happy to give you truth without the trimmings that might make it easier to digest. To offer three quick examples, which you really ought to see if you haven't, check out her work in Last Night, Go and Splice, for starters. Then move on to The Sweet Hereafter, Guinevere and The Secret Life of Words for further verification. Toss in Beowulf & Grendel and No Such Thing for good measure and a little odd fun. Really, any of her films double as proof of the pudding.

As a filmmaker, Polley has made three excellent movies: her Alzheimers-themed Away from Her, the love-and-infidelity tale Take This Waltz, and now, her best yet. With each film she has grown more courageous -- in terms of her themes and how clearly she addresses these -- as well as more stylistically innovative. And she has kept, in fact increased, her intelligent skepticism (a quality she also brings to her acting) so that her audience cannot count on anything too safely simple.

Stories We Tell has to do with parenting and parentage and will, I think, rivet anyone with a real interest in the vagaries of both. In Polley's family (she was the youngest child), she grew up with jokes about her red hair and her lineage. But these were only jokes until, after her mother died, she began to explore the situation further. What she and we learn is, as with so many family stories, at once funny, moving, surprising and -- thanks especially to the filmmaker's insistence on being as fair to everyone involved as possible (for me, and despite the Keystone Pipeline, this is what makes her movie so "Canadian") -- especially kind, honest and often very funny.

We meet Polley's (very) extended family, dad (above in the past, and below in the present), brother and sisters, and other relatives, friends and co-workers. We meet mom, via (I think) old footage and an actress, too, as we do many of the other characters, who come to life as both their real selves and actors who play them in an earlier time. Yet so seamlessly has Polley written and directed all this, with such terrific editing (Michael Munn) and cinematography (Iris Ng) that not only do we follow the byways and oddities on view, we become more and more involved emotionally and intellec-tually with her story and all the people who buzz around and in it.

At one point, the filmmaker explains how important it is to her that each voice heard is also heard in a way that honors his or her viewpoint (I'm paraphrasing, but I believe that is what Polley wants).  This is certainly not an easy task, especially in a tale this involved and that includes so many people with their own "take" on the matter. And yet I think that she actually achieves her goal. And it is this that makes her movie additionally astonishing.

As you can see, I am not going into detail about revelations offered here. It has been said that every family has its secrets; true, but the secrets here you need to experience and discover for yourself. At the end, as the credits roll, we get yet another surprise. A humdinger, in fact, and while it almost seems that the filmmaker is teasing, maybe testing, us with something that's a bit cheap, this further revelation actually underscores yet again how difficult it is to arrive at "the truth." Ms Polley has come about as close as possible, though, while doing justice by and to everyone involved.

Don't miss Stories We Tell, which could as easily be titled Lies We Tell (and I do not mean this in a nasty way, as denial is as large a part of the lives of most of us as is love and need). The film, from Roadside Attractions and running 108 minutes, opens this Friday, May 10, here in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and & the Angelika Film Center, and on Friday, May 17, in Los Angeles at The Landmark, and in other cities as well. You might try clicking on the film's web site to learn if and where the film is playing near you.

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