Sarah Polley is the 34-year old Canadian actress and film-maker, best-known recently as director of the 2012 love triangle Take This Waltz, which appears to have divided audiences and critics alike.
For her latest venture, she has interviewed the people who were in the best position to know, in so far as one could know, her mother, the actress Diana Polley. This enigmatic, mercurial woman died from cancer 23 years ago, when Sarah was 11.
Without wishing to do a “spoiler”, suffice to say that Sarah’s quest is to get to the bottom of what was once a rather predictable and, no doubt, tiresome family gag. The joke was that Sarah, the youngest in the family, did not resemble dad. He is the Guildford-born, Toronto-based former actor Michael Polley who plays a central role in the documentary.
To try and make sense of his late wife’s life, Michael scripted a considered, and remarkably tolerant memoir. This he narrates on camera throughout, directed from the mixing desk by Sarah herself. Aside from Michael's script, Sarah and he have a more relaxed, less controlled conversation about his late wife. A perpetually smoking, wheezy, ex-actor, Michael Polley might never have left Guildford, so English is he still in accent and demeanour.
Diana Polley was outgoing, fond of company, and more interested in sex than her husband, he readily admits, comparing himself to a "dead wombat" in bed. But they had children together and the reliable family man forsook acting for insurance, while his wife continued to work as an actress.
Michael was - and still is - a loner by instinct, fascinated with the solitary fly who flits around his apartment. In fact he talks to whatever fly may be there, creatures he does not swat away, but treats as pets. To be fair, that is his only eccentricity - a mild one surely - and he is an immensely likable individual.
After Diana’s death, Michael reared Sarah on his own, the elder children had flown the nest. Bereavement meant endless games of solitaire, but when he adjusted to life without Diana and the pair developed a close bond.
Sarah Polley's candid, if slightly over-long film, mixes home movie footage with scenes featuring actors playing the principal parties in faux home-movie scenes. This device can be mildly confusing, but it does lend convincing texture to a film and enhances the sense of memories explored and sifted through.
As part of Sarah's effort to clarify the mysteries of her mother’s life and how they relate to her own origins, Sarah interviews her two sisters and her two brothers at length. Diana, in their versions, comes across as a fun-loving live-wire, who raised her children with due care and affection. Meanwhile, she pursued her acting career in a Toronto she longed to escape with a kind of Chekhovian restlessness. Montreal was where she wanted to be, a less conventional city, as she saw it.
A friend points out that her febrile activity and constant running about was a way of distracting herself from her notorious past. When she walked away from her first marriage, Diana had done the unthinkable in 1970s' Toronto, which duly hit the headlines.
Her first marriage would have pleased her parents, and it produced Sarah’s elder sister and brother, but the free-spirited Diana would pay a huge price by walking away. Custody was granted to the father and she had limited access to her son and daughter.
In what they say, and how they say it, Sarah’s older brothers and sisters are remarkably open and trusting in the film. Indeed her eldest brother is witty and playful, just as a brother might be if he was comfortable being interviewed by his sister.
After all the speculation and revelation and the questions raised by Stories We Tell, the late Diana Polley remains a tantalising enigma. We see how she smiles easily, larking about the garden or at the beach with her children, in that home movie footage.
However, we do not hear her voice, aside from her sung performance of a satirical number in an early audition. Michael wrote her passionate letters during her eight weeks in Montreal, but there appear to be no letters written back. There are no diaries either, so Diana's version of her story, the version we most want to hear, can never be heard. Curiously, the absence of such revelation is what makes this documentary the strange thing it is. What is left out lends a curious dignity, a ghostly, wistful grace.