Stories We Tell uncovers a family’s puzzling secrets

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A documentary by Sarah Polley. Rated PG. Opens Friday, October 19, at the Fifth Avenue Cinemas

When actor-turned-director Sarah Polley was a teenager, her siblings joked about how little she looked like her father, English-born writer Michael Polley. Her beautiful, charismatic mother, Diane, had died a few years before that, and the burr stayed under her saddle until she began a more thorough investigation of her extended family’s puzzling secrets.

The result is Stories We Tell, a kaleidoscopic look at what goes into one family’s autobiography. She interviewed virtually everyone who was or is involved in the saga, including her many siblings, who come across as a likable, truth-prone bunch. The superbly crafted film is nicely framed by a recording session, shot by Polley, with her dad reading his dryly written recollection of the times under discussion. This narration is fleshed out by home movies, archival footage, and deftly interwoven re-creations, adding to the mystery as much as they explicate it (even if some images are, perhaps, too literal).

Of particular interest is a vintage tape of Diane auditioning for a CBC-TV program, talking-singing her own amusing spin on Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ”. Misbehaviour, especially as it was viewed in the Toronto of the 1960s and ’70s, is a central topic. Mrs. Polley had already lost one family, thanks to rigid views of her free-spirit personality, and there was an undercurrent of trouble in the filmmaker’s own immediate clan. The Polleys had met as actors in the city’s bohemian scene, but when they had children, Michael retreated into solitude while Diane still wanted a creative life.

What came from that drift makes up the bulk of Stories We Tell, and to tell more would be to ruin surprises that, like the out-of-tune piano on her soundtrack, seem both viscerally present and entertainingly far away.


Watch the trailer for Stories We Tell.

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