When most young filmmakers speak of their awe for Orson Welles, they're generally talking about Citizen Kane, the movie that made the man a legend when he was still in his twenties. At age 34, Sarah Polley draws inspiration not from the enfant terrible Welles, but from the older, slyer director for her autobiographical documentary Stories We Tell -- a work that turns the playful trickery of the master's F for Fake into a deeply personal examination of love and the power of storytelling.
Polley discovered something that radically altered her understanding of herself -- she found out that the person she had called "dad" her whole life was not in fact her biological father. This sent her on a search to uncover who was, and years after that she made this documentary that attempts to tell the entire story.
Candid remarks from her siblings -- who paint a warts-and-all picture of their parents' occasionally rocky marriage -- are intercut with startling home-movie footage that's so prescient you'll start to wonder if someone was filming every moment of the family's lives. We meet actors who worked with Polley's mother, and they attest to the fact that she was a free spirit who charmed those with whom she came into contact.
As layer after layer of this intimate and intricate emotional story is revealed by Polley, who expertly juggles her own recollections with those of her family members, we get caught up not just in the mystery, but in the distinct dynamics of the Polley clan. Her brothers and sisters all explain how their mom and dad's troubles led to their own behavior in relationships as adults, as well as the occasional spats between each other.
Then, just as it seems the film can't get any deeper, Polley begins to play with the idea of narrative itself, exploring not just how different people perceive the same events, but how whom we hear a story from affects how we process it. It's a remarkably ambitious theme to tackle in a documentary that's already so close to the director, and Polley pulls it off, turning what could easily have been little more than a tabloidy, self-serving autobiographical doodle into an engrossing declaration of her artistic mission.
With Away From Her and Take This Waltz, actress Sarah Polley became one of the freshest directorial voices of her generation. Stories We Tell doesn't just solidify this assertion, it makes you reappraise how personal those first two films are for her. This picture gets you to think about relationships; how they alter over time, shape who we are, and how we define them to others. When you realize that is the core of not just this movie, but also her other two features, it's easy to see how Stories We Tell is the profoundly natural evolution of this gifted young filmmaker. It's arguably the most thorough cinematic autobiography ever made.