Stories We Tell

Review by © Jane Freebury

Former child actor Sarah Polley made her fiction feature debut with distinction in 2006 when she directed Julie Christie as a woman with Alzheimer’s in Away From Her. Her new film, a distinguished debut in the documentary genre, is also about a woman whose absence has left an emptiness for those around who knew and loved her.

When her mother Diane died of cancer at 53, Sarah was just eleven years old. It is little wonder that she sought to discover a sense of what she had missed growing up, by rummaging around in the memories of her brothers, sisters, her father Michael and others. We hear that her mother embraced life, had an infectious personality, that her heavy walk made the ‘records skip’, but who was she? One of the revelations of this delicate, persistent and almost intolerably intimate investigation is that the woman is not dissected and that she not belong to anyone exclusively in memory–child, husband or lover.

There are several reveals that should remain secret, but the main revelation, already public property, was discovered by the filmmaker in between making Away from Her and Take This Waltz. While on set made up as a Neanderthal cavewoman, she took a call on her mobile to hear that she wasn’t Michael’s biological daughter. An ongoing family joke since she turned 18 was that she didn’t look anything like her father. ‘Who do you think your father is this week?’ her siblings would tease. It suddenly became the painful truth.

There are many strands to this wonderful film besides the stock straight-to-camera interviews with family and friends, mercifully deftly edited. Most beguiling is the meld of faked Super 8 footage, presented as excerpts from home movies featuring Diane played by Rebecca Jenkins, with actual archival footage, one in black-and-white with the real Diane singing a version of Ain’t Misbehavin’.

In cutaways to director Polley on set, mixed reactions flit across her composed features, but the person on whom impact seems most pronounced is her father. An actor of Canadian stage and TV screen who continued to raise her alone, as her older siblings had already left home. The more we see of him and how he has coped with the revelation of his daughter’s paternity, the taller Michael Polley grows in stature.

From the start this fascinating forensic study declares its interest in discovering the significance of narrative in our lives, how it is wheeled in to make sense of the nonsensical. I kept wanting to add ‘and the secrets we keep’ to the film’s title. A final reveal will explain why.

In a capsule: A fascinating, forensic documentary exploring relationships within family after the loss of a mother and the tsunami of revelations brought on by her death.

4.5 stars