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December 06, 2013

Movies You Missed & More: Stories We Tell

Screen Shot 2013-12-06 at 12.58.54 PMThis week in movies you missed: A movie star airs her family's dirty laundry on film.

Thing is, the star in question is Canadian — not to mention the talented director of Away From Her and Take This Waltz. So Sarah Polley's documentary is considerably more tasteful and thoughtful than my initial description makes it sound.

What You Missed

A young woman ushers an older man into a recording studio and asks him to read a lengthy narrative he's prepared. We soon learn this is Polley and her dad, British-born actor Michael Polley. Most of the other interviewees we see her settling in front of the camera are members or friends of her Toronto family, too.

These interviewees begin to talk — mostly about Diane Polley, the director's deceased mother. A gorgeous, vivacious, larger-than-life woman, Diane made headlines in the '60s, when she and Michael appeared together on stage. We see her in real Super 8 footage, and then recreated in fake Super 8 footage by actress Rebecca Jenkins. Meanwhile, the interviews begin to hint at a family secret to be revealed.

Why You Missed It

You may have caught Stories We Tell in a one-week run at Montpelier's Savoy Theater; it didn't play in Chittenden County. Canadian newspapers report that the film's distributor is currently pushing it for Oscar consideration.

You can watch it on DVD, iTunes or Amazon Instant Video.

Should You Keep Missing It?

There's nothing trickier than making a documentary about one's own family. The filmmaker risks alienating his or her loved ones — and the audience. Keeping that in mind, I've scored Stories We Tell on three parameters that apply to this kind of movie in general:

Trading on Filmmaker's Celebrity Factor: Low. Mass audiences may know Polley as the star of the Dawn of the Dead remake, and art-house patrons saw her shine in Go and The Sweet Hereafter before blossoming into a director. But she's not a household name — at least not in the U.S. For the purposes of this film, which barely mentions her career, she could be anybody.

Navel-Gazing Factor: Remarkably low. The adult Polley doesn't narrate the film and rarely even appears on screen.

As a result, one might say that Stories We Tell lacks a driving force; Polley doesn't frame it as "my quest to find out X," though that's actually what it is. To the extent that she shapes the narrative, she does so with disorienting juxtapositions of real and fake past footage (honestly, I'm still not sure which was which in many cases) and by spotlighting conflicts between the different interviewees' accounts. The implication is that we all shape stories as we tell them.

That's certainly true. But at one point, Polley's dad asks her if she isn't perhaps just deflecting attention from her own motives in telling this story, because self-revelation embarrasses her. It's a fascinating and telling moment.

Does Anybody Outside the Family Actually Care? That's going to depend on your interest in other people's families, especially artsy, self-conscious ones. I found Diane and Michael Polley and one other key player very compelling. Yet I wondered how much my interest came from the actors in the staged recreations and how much it came from the people themselves.

As for the "secret," it's already out there, right on Polley's Wikipedia page. Even if you didn't know it beforehand (I didn't), it's easy to guess as you watch.

But for me, the dirty laundry wasn't the point; the personalities were. (My favorite scene is where Michael Polley tells his daughter how much he values the company of flies in his solitary loft.) People react to the big "reveal" quite differently, not always as you'd expect.

Verdict: Think of Alison Bechdel's Fun Home. Now imagine if Bechdel had somehow made herself a marginal figure in her parents' story, while retaining all her self-consciousness about presenting it to the public.

If that rouses your curiosity, you'll enjoy Stories We Tell, whatever doubts it raises for you.

This Week in Theaters

Christian Bale toils in the Rust Belt in gritty crime drama Out of the Furnace. Blue Is the Warmest Color moves to the Savoy. Don't look for Inside Llewyn Davis in Vermont; maybe next week.

This Week on Video

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, The Smurfs 2, The Wolverine, Drinking Buddies, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, Winnie Mandela.


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