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Stories We Tell
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Take This Waltz Instead"
5 stars

"Stories We Tell" is the most difficult kind of movie for a film critic to write about. This is not to suggest for an instant that it is a bad movie by any means--it is already one of the very best films of the year to date and I am fairly confident it will retain that position when 2013 comes to a close. The problem is that this is one of those films that is best experienced, at least the first time around, by knowing as little about its subject matter as possible before going in. Obviously, I would not dream of supplying any specific information that could be construed as a spoiler in the course of this review but I fear that I may have already said too much despite not really saying much of anything. Therefore, even though I shall be pressing on in my praise for this extraordinary film, my recommendation to you would be to put down this review and go see it right now because I can almost guarantee that, with the possible exception of "To The Wonder," you will not find a better movie playing anywhere at this moment.!

The film is the brainchild of Canadian actress-filmmaker Sarah Polley and while only in her mid-thirties as I write this, she has long established herself as one of the most fascinating talents of any age working today. She began acting as a child, most notably as the star of a TV series based on Beverly Cleary's "Ramona" books and as the little girl providing the sensible center amidst the chaos of "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen," and made the transition from kid roles to more adult fair with her performances in Atom Egoyan's back-to-back masterpieces "Exotica" and "The Sweet Hereafter," where her turn as a teenaged girl whose complicated relationship with her father is exacerbated when she is one of the few survivors of a tragic school bus accident. Since then, she has appeared in any number of intriguing films such as MIchael Winterbottom's great "The Claim," "Go" and "Splice" (though she is probably best recognized by the mass audience for starring in the better-than-it-had-to-be remake of "Dawn of the Dead") and has established herself as one of those rare performers whose mere appearance is a signal to viewers that things are about to get interesting.

In 2009, she moved behind the camera to write and direct "Away From Her," an adaptation of an Alice Munro short story about an aging husband (Gordon Pinsett) whose life is thrown into turmoil when his wife (Julie Christie) is diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease and later falls in love with a fellow patient at the care facility where she has gone to live even as she begins to forget the person to whom she is actually married--there is also the suggestion that she may be using the disease as a way of getting back at the various marital wrongs he committed during their years together. It may not sound like the kind of material that a young filmmaker might immediately relate to but Polley displayed such a firm and powerful grasp of both the story and its characters that the end result was one of the best films of that year and earned her an Oscar nomination for Adapted Screenplay.

Her follow-up directorial effort was last year's "Take This Waltz," in which a seemingly flighty woman (Michelle Williams) found herself torn between maintaining a relationship with her solid, likable but dull husband or begin an affair with the hunky artist/pedicab driver who just happens to live down the street. This time around, the results were far more problematic--Williams was great but I personally found watching her borderline infantile character flitting about for two solid hours to be borderline intolerable--but even though I did not like it at all, I will admit that Polley directed it with the kind of passion and conviction that suggested that making it meant a great deal to her and that shewould not be the kind of filmmaker who would be doing lousy multiplex fodder for the sake of a hefty paycheck anytime soon.

Now we have "Stories We Tell" and I can think of no higher praise to give it than to say that after watching it, I was inspired to go back and watch "Take This Waltz" again to see if I was just flat-out wrong about it at the time. I still don't think that it works very well as a film--certainly not to the degree that its supporters (and there are many) clearly believe it does--but seeing it in the wake of "Stories We Tell" is interesting because they both deal with similar thematic material involving love, betrayal, memory and the struggles of a restless spirit trying to settle into a life of comfortable domesticity and how those struggles go on to affect the lives of others as well. Having wrestled with these notions within a fictional framework, Polley now deals with a real-life story that not only involves those issues but centers on her own family to boot. The result is a one-of-a-kind film that tells a story that is powerfully universal, achingly personal and filled with enough surprises--both formally and narratively--to keep viewers absolutely spellbound from start to finish.

The focus of the film is on Polley's late mother, Diane, an aspiring actress who met Michael Polley when they were appearing in a play together in Ontario. They fell in love and got married but Michael decided to put away his dreams of being a writer in order to settle down and have a family. Diane tried to also settle down into a normal domestic routine--house, kids and the works--but she simply was not cut out for that type of life. Years later, she went to Montreal to appear in a play and when she returned, the bliss of the early days of her relationship with Michael came back as well and soon after, Sarah was born. There were rumors of affairs and after Diane's death from cancer in 1990, there dark jokes inside the family about whether or not Michael was actually Sarah's real father. Curious, Sarah decides to investigate the question of her parentage and makes a series of astonishing discoveries that I will not even hint at from this point on.

On the surface, "Stories We Tell" may sound like another one of those solipsistic extended home movie-cum-therapy sessions along the lines of "Capturing the Friedmans" and "Tarnation" that have gone on to form their own documentary subgenre in recent years with the uptick in digital filmmaking. In most cases, these films have not been that interesting because the filmmakers oftentimes fail to find a way to tell their personal sagas that make them relatable, either dramatically or cinematically, to those not in their immediate circle of family and friends. "Stories We Tell" manages to avoid that trap not just because of the story it has to tell, which is utterly compelling from start to finish, but because of the manner in which Polley has elected to tell it. Rather than a straightforward recitation of facts and talking heads, she uses a wide array of methods to tell her story ranging from home movies to testimonials from family members tohaving her father compile his memories of the events into a story and then recording itto serve as a form of voiceover.

By utilizing so many different perspectives as to the story at hand, no one version of what occurred is allowed to take precedence and while this inspires some degree of visible frustration from Polley's family, it brilliantly underlines the point that Polley is getting at. Although we might think that we can easily sum up our life stories and those of our loved ones, each of us only has one particular perspective and without those other views, it is impossible to get the full picture. By using bits and pieces of the various histories, Polley is able to impose her own view of theproceedings that literally led to her existence even though she wasn't actually present for any of them. As this film proves, a life is not an easily understood linear structure in which everything makes sense and comes wrapped up in a perfect little package.Instead, it is more like a mosaic made up of countless items that may appear to be ajumbled and contradictory mess at first glance but which reveal a full and detailed picture upon closer examination.

She also proves just how easy it can be to shape and revise those memories to suit thestory that we want to tell as opposed to what may have actually happened. There is, for example, some extraordinary footage in which we see her father recording his story, which is already one refraction of the events, and having him go back and change his readings of certain lines to get the effect that she wants, adding yet another layer to the tale. Towards the end, there is another revelation that, from a formal standpoint, is just as much of a shock as any of the dramatic twists and the kind of thing that willdoubtlessly inspire many viewers to want to watch it again just so that they canexperience it again with this new information.

Of course, just getting people to see it that first time around will no doubt be an uphill battle in and of itself. I admit that for most people, there is little about "Stories We Tell" that screams "See Me!" on the surface--the numbers of moviegoers who will instantly respond to the promise of a documentary chronicling the odd family life of an actress whom they most likely know vaguely if at all are presumably low. And yet, this is a film that contains more passion, drama, mystery and excitement than any number ofconventional films to come along the pike in a while and when it is over, they won't besitting there thinking "Gee, that was a great documentary!"--they will be thinking "That was a great film!" More importantly, it will move viewers in unexpected ways and eveninspire them to contemplate how they look at the stories of the lives and themselves andtheir loved ones in ways that will resonate long after the memories of the jumbo-sizedblockbusters of the season have long since faded away. Whatever efforts you have toundergo in order to see this film, I assure you without hesitation that they are worth itand then some. If nothing else, it could make for an interesting family outing.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=24214&reviewer=389
originally posted: 05/17/13 06:57:25
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Telluride Film Festival For more in the 2012 Telluride Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2013 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Chicago Critics Film Festival For more in the 1st Annual Chicago Critics Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Independent Film Festival Boston For more in the 2013 Independent Film Festival Boston series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Nashville Film Festival For more in the 2013 Nashville Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  10-May-2013 (PG-13)
  DVD: 03-Sep-2013

UK
  N/A

Australia
  10-May-2013
  DVD: 03-Sep-2013


Directed by
  Sarah Polley

Written by
  N/A

Cast
  (documentary)



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