Tells Sarah’s Story
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
The other day I was up in my attic and came across a box of Super 8 home movies, flickering vignettes of my childhood recorded by my parents on an old Kodak movie camera. There I was at a birthday party, with my cousins, riding on my pony, and at the beach splashing in the waves. My childhood captured on tiny strips of celluloid.
Writer-director-actress Sarah Polley recreated her life with footage shot to look like a home movie. “Stories We Tell” -- the documentary that’s currently playing at the Tropic Cinema -- is the result of her genealogical exploration.
You see, people had always commented on how Polley didn’t much resemble her father. Her free-spirited mother laughed it off. Only later did Polley try to figure out if she had a biological father different from the dad she grew up with.
Did her mother have an affair?
“I’m interested in the way we tell stories about our lives,” Polley says. “About the fact that the truth about the past is often ephemeral and hard to pin down.”
Her brother remembers their mother as “a fun person at parties and that she laughed loud.” She belonged to theater groups. She was vivacious.
And sometimes she cried when no one was watching.
Diane McMillian Polley died of cancer when her daughter was eleven. It was a traumatic event for young Sarah ... and a departure that left many unanswered questions.
For this recreation of the family’s past, Polley used Rebecca Jenkins to play her mother in the simulated home movie clips. Jenkins was a friend of her mother. “Rebecca is an astonishing actress,” says Polley. “She’s done such an amazing job that a lot of people don’t realize, until the very end of the film, that those scenes are re-creations.”
As for other roles, she interviewed the real people, including her father Michael Polley, her brother Mark, and many others. The stories she got were often contradictory. She discovered that the truth depends on who’s telling it.
Born into a theatrical family, Sarah Polley was a successful child actress before becoming a filmmaker. Her actor dad appeared with her in “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” and TV’s “Avonlea.” Her mother was both an actress and casting director.
Although having acted in 55 films, she eschewed Hollywood productions for indies. Notably she dropped out of Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous,” the role that gave Kate Hudson an Oscar nomination. But she got her own Oscar nod for Best Adapted Screenplay with 2006’s “Away From Her.”
“I think you have to keep your distance from mainstream Hollywood in order to be a normal human being. I mean, I work there, and I like being there, but I love having an anonymous life. I think there’s definitely such a thing as being too famous.”
There’s a contradiction in Polley’s own words. Having an anonymous life is at odds with making a documentary about yourself and your family.
“I was exploring the themes of infidelity and long-term relationships in both my previous features and all of my short films,” she admits. “And now that I’ve made a movie about where the interest came from, subconsciously, I wonder if I now have to make fundamentally different films. It’s going to be hard to make a straightforward film again.”