Sarah Polley has delivered some terrific performances -- as a kid in "The Sweet Hereafter" (1997), in "The Secret Life of Words" (2005) and even in "Dawn of the Dead" (2004). She's more recently concentrated on directing and made one first-rate dramatic feature -- "Away From Her," which earned, among other things, an Oscar nomination for Julie Christie.
But "Stories We Tell," a reality-based bit of alchemy from a politically minded Canadian filmmaker, is a different thing entirely. It's the story of the Polleys, built out of home-movie footage, interviews, family history and the not-so-startling revelation that events get altered in the seeing, and transformed in the telling.
The youngest of her parents' multiple kids from multiple marriages, Polley had been familiar with the running family joke about who her father was. Why the jokes? Her vivacious mother, Diane, an actress, had become pregnant, a bit later in life, during a theater run in Toronto. Was her biological father really one of Diane's co-stars? Polley sets out to discover the whos, whats and whys, interviewing various characters with fascinatingly disparate views. What develops is the stuff of novels.
At no point does the momentum of "Stories We Tell" flag, or the story stop evolving. You may wonder if the tale is going to go in a certain direction, but even when it ultimately does, you're still surprised. Telling too much about this very inventive film is to ruin the effect that Polley takes such care to construct, but the advice here is to stay for the credits and read them. Seeing is believing, but sometimes we need some help.
PLOT Actress-cum-director Sarah Polley goes on a journey for family secrets, and makes more than a few left turns.
RATING PG-13 (thematic elements involving sexuality, brief strong language)
BOTTOM LINE A fascinating variant on the documentary form that examines what we see, and how we see it