Diane Polley, the mother of Canadian actress and director Sarah Polley, was, by all accounts, a vivacious woman who could light up a room upon her arrival. She was ditzy, impulsive and passionate, with a big horsey laugh. If an actress had played her on-screen, it would have been Gena Rowlands, for sure.

Diane, a wannabe actress in the 1970s who mostly abandoned her career after marrying her onstage co-star Michael Polley, would have loved to be on the big screen. But instead, she had kids and supported her man, and mostly remained the homemaker, except for one middle-aged foray into theater. Sarah was her fifth and last child; Diane died from cancer when Sarah was only 11 years old.

Sarah, of course, is now one of Canada’s best-known talents — recognized as an actress in films as diverse as “The Sweet Hereafter” and Zach Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” remake, and for directing “Away From Her” (2006) and “Take This Waltz” (2011). “Stories We Tell” is a documentary that looks into memories of her mother.

Stories We Tell (Monogataru Watashitachi)
Director Sarah Polley
Run Time 108 minutes
Language English
Opens Aug. 30

We glimpse Diane in photos and home movies, though viewers should note that some of the seemingly ancient Super 8 footage is actually forged via reenactments. Even so, Diane really comes to life through the words of those who knew her, including Sarah’s father, her siblings and friends of the family.

Yet this seemingly nostalgic project turns out to be something far deeper: Diane had a secret. Not just any secret, but a huge one of Joni Mitchell proportions, which would have irreparably affected Sarah and her relations with her family.

“Stories We Tell” is Polley’s attempt to let everyone involved say their piece, and to try to fit those pieces together and make sense of the puzzle.

To be honest, I’m of two minds about “Stories We Tell.” On the one hand, it is certainly typical of North America’s culture of confession, where everyone’s dirty laundry is not only hung out in public but turned into a book, a reality show, a TMZ interview, or failing that, perhaps a social-media meltdown. Maybe I’ve been in Japan too long or, maybe, as always, I’m just playing devil’s advocate, but there’s something to be said for restraint and for working out private matters, well, privately. Sarah herself has long resisted the pull of celebrity status, and she even says as much at one point in the film: “I can’t figure out why I’m exposing all of us in this way.”

Regardless, Polley does have an intriguing story to tell, and the “Rashomon”-style way in which she constructs it with conflicting viewpoints has much to say about the elusive nature of truth, even if it is a bit long-winded. To her credit, she refrains from making it all about her, and most importantly, the act of making the film seems to have genuinely helped everyone involved to come to terms with a very messy past, especially in the case of her father. When it comes to therapy, the one thing you should never argue with is positive results.

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