The further details recede into the past, the knottier the truth becomes. Reality is multifaceted, and a devil of a thing to pin down in a documentary.
Acknowledging all this, Sarah Polley plunges ahead with Stories We Tell, a very personal and inventive inquiry into the true identity of her biological father. She uses interviews, old home movies, newly shot footage made to look like aged Super-8 film, and recordings of her father reading from his memoir to construct one of the most lyrical documentaries to come along in a while. The story she tells is ultimately her assemblage of the truth, but one that looks beyond herself to make sense of the many perceptions that shape her understanding.
In addition to being a renowned Canadian actress, Polley, 34, has distinguished herself as the writer and director of the finely wrought fiction films Away From Her and Take This Waltz. Both of them revealed a wisdom beyond her years; expect no less from her documentary debut.
Polley is the youngest daughter of two stage actors who had a loving but unbalanced marriage. Her father suspects that her mother fell in love with the character he was playing when they met, not the person he was. And when Polley was 11 years old, her mother died of cancer. Aside from the trauma of losing a parent at such a young age, she grew up perplexed about the ribbing she received from her siblings, who teased that she was not her dad's biological daughter. Lots of circumstantial evidence points in that direction, and Polley embarks on a journey to discover the truth. Needless to say, the experience takes her in unexpected directions. The film also becomes a lovely portrait of Polley's mother, a woman who left mysteries in her wake.
As lovely as it is, Stories We Tell loses its footing near the end, once the central mystery is solved and the focus turns to the filmmaker and the choices she must make in shaping her documentary. Yet the film never grows self-indulgent. When Polley decides to tell a story, you can bet it's one you'll want to hear.