Stories We Tell

Family crisis

Sarah Polley is the Canadian director who gave us the outstanding Away From Her (2006) and Take This Waltz (2011), both about family crises. Again, she impresses with a moving documentary about her own family living in Canada. 

This time, Sarah Polley is a central part of the crisis. It examines the relationships between the director’s parents, Michael and Diane, and herself, and reveals that she was the child of an extramarital affair. It shows interviews with Polley’s siblings, her parents and friends, and includes her father’s narration of a memoir that he wrote himself after he learnt that Sarah was not his child.

Many people in the film play themselves, but key people like Polley’s mother, Diane (Rebecca Jenkins) and her father, Michael (Peter Evans), who reared her, are played for the most part by actors. It is an intensely personal movie, as Sarah Polley sits down with family and friends and asks them to talk about her vibrant mother, who died by cancer when she was 11.

This is a wonderfully layered film that unravels a world of family secrets that have stayed hidden for a long time, but are now being shared. The film tells us how Sarah’s father and mother met after Diane’s failed first marriage, fell in love, and began a family.

Towards its end, the film focuses on the director herself, and cogently develops the view that story-telling is as much about fulfilling human needs as it is about providing a record of what actually happened. The camera dwells not just on Michael, but also on Sarah’s biological father, Harry Gulkin, who plays himself.

The film offers a powerful analysis of how memory is constructed, and how storytelling satisfies a variety of perspectives. The last 20 minutes of this documentary are particularly powerful, as the film moves provocatively to its conclusions. The movie becomes the director’s personal 'narrative.'

Sarah Polley is good enough as a director, however, to turn the movie into an experience not just about herself, but also about ourselves.

- Peter Sheehan, ACOFB

Starring Rebecca Jenkins, Peter Evans, Sarah Polley, and others. Directed by Sarah Polley. Rated M (Infrequent coarse language). 109 min.

Stories We Tell

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