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'Stories We Tell': Director's look at family's secrets, lies and love ★★★★

Everywhere in the culture, there's another monologuist or filmmaker placing herself at the center of a question, or a series of questions: What's up with my family? How did I get here? How can one charismatic family member hold so many secrets?

Sarah Polley's remarkable "Stories We Tell" transcends every cliche in this confessional/investigatory genre, and it's one of the year's highlights. The Canadian director ("Away From Her," "Take This Waltz"), also known as a truth-seeking actress, begins by interviewing her sisters, brothers and half-siblings about Polley's late mother, Diane.

"A fun person at parties," recalls one sibling, Mark. She was the type, he says, who "made the record skip" as she entered a room, generating a whirlwind of boisterous vivacity.

Diane's marriage to Polley's father, Michael, a sometime professional actor, was a love mismatch. She was intensely social; he was emotionally isolated and unwilling to give her what she needed. Diane and Michael met in 1965 when he was doing the North American premiere of Harold Pinter's "The Caretaker."

Offstage, Polley's father — a heavy smoker seen in "Stories We Tell" recording his own memories and narration bits in the studio with his director daughter — retreated into those Pinter pauses.

The family joke, recounted by several of Polley's family members in the essayistic documentary, was that red-haired Sarah must've been fathered by someone other than the man she called dad. The jest stuck. And then it wasn't a joke anymore. As Polley's film follows what she learned about her parentage, as well as her mother's hidden life, "Stories We Tell" fans out to cover a brilliant and touching variety of memories, viewpoints, feelings about what's important in life, in marriage, in love.

Everything in Polley's film works with everything else: the soundtrack, full of parlor favorites from another age lending the memory-film aspect of "Stories We Tell" a nostalgic quality, never overwhelms the emotional content of the on-camera revelations. There's a shot in the film of one key interview subject, gently putting away an old photograph in a desk drawer. It's held for just the right length of time, as the man's heart breaks a little on camera, in sync with our own. Polley's sense of timing is perfect. This fascinating odyssey is very nearly that too.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Stories We Tell' -- 4 stars
MPAA rating:
PG-13 (for thematic elements involving sexuality, brief strong language and smoking)
Running time: 1:48
Opens: Friday

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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