Young, accomplished Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley expands her range further with “Stories We Tell,” a fascinating, slippery documentary that is an examination of the documentary form itself. Probably best known in this country as an actress in “The Sweet Hereafter” and the “Dawn of the Dead” reboot, Polley branched off into writing and directing with her Oscar-nominated “Away From Her” and the bittersweet Michelle Williams romance “Take This Waltz.”
“Stories We Tell” is another thing entirely. Rounding up her father, four siblings and extended family and friends, all of them nervous and slightly unsure what she’s up to, Polley sits them down, aims cameras at them and asks them to tell her all they know about her parents’ marriage “and everything that’s happened since.”
That turns out to be a lot. As one older family friend says, “I guess I’d better pee first.” Sister Joanna laughs and protests, “Who cares about our stupid family?” But it’s a very interesting bunch of people. Polley’s parents, Michael and Diane, were both beloved Toronto actors of stage and screen. Diane came into Michael’s life following her disastrous first marriage, already raising children of her own. Memories of this woman — a live wire whose emphatic passage through a room made the stereo needle skip tracks — still make her kids tear up. She died in 1990, when Sarah, the baby of the family, was only 11.
So what is “Stories We Tell” about? In essence, it’s about the adult Sarah’s attempt to understand the vibrant woman she scarcely knew, depicted in photos, home movies and other media. More urgently, the director uses what she laughingly calls her “interrogation process” to finally uncover the truth about her own identity. That investigation centers on a sort of half-cruel, half-loving joke the older siblings made concerning their kid sister’s origins. What if there was truth behind the joke?
To say much more would slightly weaken the film, though it’s still compelling if you know the central mystery. Even when focused on talking heads, Polley brings a clean and interesting visual style to her movie, though “Stories” lingers slightly longer than it needs to. It underscores the main point a little heavily: that the “facts” of history can be elusive, and they’re colored by the viewpoint of the teller of the tale. Just when you start to lose patience, though, Polley saves one last surprise for the final minutes, making us question in a whole new way all the things we think we’ve literally just seen with our own eyes.
Her family makes for good company, and father Michael — still a bit of a ham in his old age — is especially dear. He’s responsible for reading aloud the film’s narration in a recording studio, playing “himself.” When his daughter, at the control panel, asks him to do another take on one emotional segment, he complains, “Awww! I was being so real — even convinced myself!” It’s moments like those that get to the unknowable heart of what we call “the truth.”
“Stories We Tell.” A documentary by Sarah Polley. Rated PG-13. 108 minutes. At Tara.