My favorite moment among many in Sarah Polley’s truly extraordinary “Stories We Tell” – one of the great films of the last 12 months – is the A-ha! moment when Polley reveals her indisputable discovery about her disputed parentage.
We know that when the actress and magnificent director (“Away From Her,” for which her star Julie Christie was robbed of an Oscar) smiles broadly, you see even more gum than you do teeth. And then, in “Stories We Tell,” she shows us the very real eldest daughter of a Canadian film producer that her long-dead mother met when she did a play in Montreal.
We see that daughter smile broadly. And, just as Polley did on that day, we instantly realize that this woman – whom Polley had never even met before – has the actress’ exact same mouth.
DNA could hardly announce itself in one family in a more pronounced way.
In the context of this unique and absolutely wonderful film, it’s a glorious moment. It’s more than a little hilarious, and more than a little exhilarating and more than a little bittersweet for the loving man who previously raised Polley as his own daughter (and, of course, no matter what biology could possibly say, will always be her “real” father).
It was a family joke among Polley’s brothers and sisters that Polley didn’t quite look as much like Dad as the rest of them did. And that maybe her father was a handsome actor named Owen with whom their mother had co-starred in that play in Montreal.
More than anything else, though, that moment proves that there is nothing more interesting you can see in a movie sometimes than someone else’s home movies. It depends on the home. It depends too on who that “someone else” is.
And that’s why Polley spends so much of “Stories We Tell” simulating with astonishing persuasiveness the “home movies” we’re watching. The only other film I can think of to make such exceptional use of simulated documentary footage is my favorite Woody Allen film “Zelig.”
It will take you a while in “Stories We Tell” to realize that simulations of home movies are, in fact, what you’re seeing here – re-creations by actors of family life glimpsed of very real family members and friends who, in their contemporary adulthood, we have heard being interviewed, tellingly.
This is Polley’s real family talking about their real mother – who died of cancer – and a pivotal moment in all their lives: the discovery that Sarah, their littlest sister, who arrived when their mother was 42, didn’t really resemble their loving and devoted Dad for a pretty good reason.
Both of Polley’s parents were actors. Diane and Mick met in the theater. They performed a Sartre play together “The Condemned of Altona.”
Diane, her mother, was “very loud.” She was the kind of woman who walked very hard and “made the records skip.” (In other words, the phonograph needle bounced on the family’s vinyl when she walked past.)
She was “not a private person” says one friend. “She lacked guile.” She was “warm and full of life” says another.
She was usually the life of the party. And, right at the beginning of this movie, his own children admit “Dad said she wanted to have a lot more sex than he did.”
“A night with a dead wombat,” admits Polley’s father about his own behavior sometimes in the most intimate of marital areas.
We learn later that Polley’s father was, in fact, her mother’s second husband. Her first successfully sued for custody of her oldest children when they divorced.
Diane Polley, clearly, was a woman as complicated as she seems to have been irresistible to almost everyone.
Mick was, he now says, overjoyed when his wife got a job onstage in Montreal and would leave the family back in Toronto for a few months.
And that is where she met a film producer who, in circumstances difficult to determine without a blood test, made his entrance into Sarah Polley’s family.
It’s an extraordinary revelation when it comes but it’s far from the movie’s climax. Not even close. What comes after that in the film’s second half continues to do nothing but surprise and move us greatly.
It’s a brilliant film – a kind of investigative autobiography that does something different with cinematic form.
It’s also a heartbreaking one, as Sarah Polley’s father quotes Pablo Neruda in the manuscript he writes and narrates about one of the most heartbreaking of all human facts: “Love is so short, forgetting so long.”
Here is what her father calls Sarah Polley’s “search for the vagaries of faith and the indelibility of memory.”
It proves what “Before Midnight” proved a couple weeks ago: Some of the smallest of films produce some of the biggest emotions.
A great film. When you see it – and I couldn’t urge it more highly – try to imagine the gales of laughter from Polley and her siblings at the revelation that is the film’s final joke.
Stories We Tell
Rating: 4 stars
Description: Acclaimed actress/director Sarah Polley’s award-winning staged documentary about her own family and its secrets. 108 minutes, rated PG-13 for language and adult subject matter.