Canadian director Sarah Polley's documentary on the mystery of her family is a highly inventive, extremely personal piece of filmmaking, that turns the mystery of the story she's telling on its head, and becomes itself something of a puzzle to be unraveled (although I admit I saw one particular twist coming ahead of time, but maybe that surprise will work better on you than it did me).
The film begins fairly conventionally, using interviews with Polley's family members and home video footage to tell the story of her mother Diane, a Canadian actress who was active in the 1960's and 70's, and the relationship she had with Sarah's father, Michael, her second husband, whom she married and had several children with, including Sarah. The film creatively uses the footage and memories of various relatives and acquaintances, whose place in Diane and Michael's life becomes revealed gradually, as Diane's story begins to get more and more complicated as it progresses through her later years. Diane herself died of cancer when Sarah was 11 years old, and the questions her film asks about her mother begin to show themselves as a part of Sarah's own reckoning with finding out as much as she can about a woman she never really got to know. A woman who turns out to have been hiding life altering secrets that as they come to light, affect and change Sarah forever, which she is candidly and openly revealing about herself on film.
It's hard to describe this movie without giving away several twists, which are crucial to what happens in the story, and one of them I am going to reveal here, so I'll warn you ahead of time with a great big SPOILER ALERT in case you don't want to know: Sarah, the youngest child in her family, ultimately finds out that she was the product of an affair, and that Michael is not her biological father, which until now, no one in the family knew, including her father. The way this revelation affects the family is obviously painful and shocking, and the way Polley herself deals with this life-changing truth is to be incredibly honest about her feelings and to ultimately expose the whole story, using accounts of her mother from other people, and writings from her father, which she intertwines into this spell-binding documentary. The film shifts gears as the layers grow deeper, and it goes from simply being the firsthand account of one life, to the heartbreaking reconciliation and reunion of a daughter and her two fathers, and ultimately a story about stories- how they're told, who they can affect, what forms they can take (several are undertaken to tell just this one alone) and the ways in which all families are probably hiding multiple stories of their own, which could be revealed by doing a little digging and talking to just the right people.
By putting herself out there in this way, Sarah Polley reveals herself as a very ambitious filmmaker who isn't afraid to take chances in the way that she tells stories, and her track record so far is the beginning of what looks to be a career worth following (her other two films as a director are 2007's Away From Her and 2011's Take This Waltz, both worth seeing). Stories We Tell is fascinating, complex and inspiring filmmaking- and one of the year's best and most unique films.
* * * 1/2