Movie Review: 'Stories We Tell' -- 3 stars
Stories We Tell
Documentary by Sarah Polley
Playing at the Angelika and Lincoln Plaza
All movies are personal in one way or another for their makers. You simply can't devote the energy and resources required to complete a feature film without pouring at least a smidgen of yourself into the process.
But Sarah Polley's "Stories We Tell" isn't your everyday small, intimate effort. It's a meditation on the nature of identity and the quest to find meaning in the past, structured as a series of interviews, tidbits of narration and Super 8 re-enactments that provide multiple perspectives on a seminal event.
That event happens to be Polley's birth; the movie was formed out of the revelation several years ago that the man the writer-director-actress believed to be her biological father was not, and that her late mother had kept secret the truth: Sarah was conceived during an extramarital affair with a movie producer named Harry Gulkin.
"Stories We Tell" functions in part as a mystery, with Polley trying to unpack exactly what happened some three decades ago -- and why. It's a character study about the filmmaker and the man who raised her, her dad, who heroically confronts this life-altering revelation.
Most of all, the documentary is about Sarah Polley's quest to form a picture of her mom, Diane Polley, who died when her daughter was 11 but lives on in the stories told by the filmmaker's siblings, her father Michael, close friends and Harry, this new, enormous presence in Sarah's life.
"A story has as many versions as it has readers," wrote John Steinbeck, and Polley smartly recasts this documentary to reflect that notion. The movie doesn't answer the most difficult questions; Diane isn't around to speak for herself.
But, in offering many points of view on the event at hand, incorporating each interview subject's notion of Diane Polley, the movie is convincingly built around the essential truth that we are ultimately defined by our loved ones' memories and perceptions.