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TIFF '12: In 'Stories We Tell,' A Director Turns The Camera On Her Family

Family footage and photos form the backbone of Sarah Polley's documentary, <em>Stories We Tell</em>.
Toronto International Film Festival
Family footage and photos form the backbone of Sarah Polley's documentary, Stories We Tell.

[Monkey See will be at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) through the middle of next week. We'll be bringing you our takes on films both large and small, from people both well-known and not.]

Sarah Polley got her first big film exposure as a young actress in the late '90s in films like Go and The Sweet Hereafter. But she's also been making a name as a director of films including 2006's Away From Her, for which she also wrote the screenplay and for which she was nominated for a large haul of awards.

Now, she brings one of the most chattered-about films of the Toronto festival with Stories We Tell, a documentary about her own family. The idea of a director studying her own family might seem self-indulgent, but as it turns out, Polley felt some pressure to tell this story herself. And the project might also seem unnecessary or of little interest — Polley's sister says so herself — but Sarah Polley doesn't have an ordinary family.

At the center of the film is a series of events that happened in the Polley family before Sarah was born, and it might be better to enter the film not knowing exactly what those events are, though many reviews will tell you. Suffice it to say that her mother and father, like so many people, had a complicated marriage — her mother's second, after a disastrous first marriage to a man who eventually got custody of their children, which at the time was very unusual. Furthermore, Sarah was a late-in-life baby for her mom, and there's an interview with one of her Mom's friends that shows, with darkly funny emphasis, just how excited Mom probably wasn't about being pregnant.

The first thing Polley shows in the film is her father entering a recording booth where he reads from a sheaf of papers as part of the creation of the documentary. So not only are you seeing the story of her family, but you're also seeing her making the story of her family. It might sound a little precious, but by the end, I was convinced it had to be so for us to get why she's doing it at all, taking something so private and making it public.

What makes the film so moving is how much the people in it love each other, particularly Sarah and her wry writer father and her siblings. (Her mother is no longer alive.) Sarah Polley comes, perhaps not surprisingly, from theatrical stock, and her brothers and sisters are fine accomplices in making talking-head interviews lively and keeping this story — which, like most family stories, has some sad parts — from getting too sad.

There are some fine touches in the way she withholds information, not really explaining who the players are until their roles emerge organically. Everyone just gets a name: "Jeff," "Harry," "Mark." You'll learn who they are when you need to.

The conceit of returning to Polley and her father recording his voice-over could have gotten dull, but it has a lovely way of reinforcing the film's underlying fascination with the challenges of memory and the construction of narratives. Seeing Dad in the recording booth is a reminder that this, while it might seem to be an investigation, is in fact a highly personal document, made by an involved party, and it is the product of her creative process and not anything at all objective — which her father, with all his love for her, tells her himself.

What might surprise you is how genuinely funny the film is in many places; Polley isn't afraid to find the funny things about even troubling tales that hit close to home. (Make sure you stay for the little tag on the film, which is both a little painful and genuinely hilarious.) This isn't a dumping ground of miseries; it's a family piecing together what they remember and coming to terms with the fact that they remember things very differently in some cases.

This one doesn't have a U.S. release date yet, but hang on, and it will get to you, I'm sure.

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.

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