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Movie review: Sarah Polley investigates the life's story

The first sign that "Stories We Tell" is not a typical documentary comes within its first few minutes. The young, blonde director, Sarah Polley, says to one of her subjects, as he's getting comfortably situated in the interviewing chair, that while she told him she was making a documentary, this will really be an "interrogation." There's a bit of laughter, so the audience senses this is a joke.

It is, and it isn't. "Stories We Tell" takes a long, long time to get moving. But once it does, it doesn't stop. It must be one of the most personal documentaries ever made, but it explores, with deep intelligence and feeling, ideas that have been at the core of the human experience since our beginnings.

Canadians of a certain age feel like they grew up with Polley, while Canadians of a slightly older age probably feel strangely protective of her. The writer-director is best known in the United States as an independent actress from such films as "Go" and "Dawn of the Dead" and the maker of the Julie Christie film "Away from Her," for which Polley received an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. But the now-34-year-old actress first became famous in her native Canada in 1990, as the young star of the television series "Road to Avonlea," based on books by the beloved author L.M. Montgomery. The Disney Channel distributed it in the U.S.

On screen
'Stories We Tell'
» Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars
» Starring: Sarah Polley, Michael Polley
» Director: Sarah Polley
» Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements involving sexuality, brief strong language and smoking
» Running time: 108 minutes

"Stories We Tell" documents how the adult Polley, years after her mother, Diane, died when the girl was 11, discovered, quite accidentally, that her father, Michael, wasn't actually her biological father. But this isn't a melodramatic tale of tawdry betrayal, unrequited love and family fury. Polley has taken a shattering experience -- that certainly had its blessings, introducing her to the kindred spirit whose DNA she carries -- and turned it into art, a meditation on memory and creation that she's generously shared with the world.

Polley doesn't tell much of the story herself. She relies on those older than her who were around at the time to share their memories. They sometimes conflict, something that infuriates the director as a daughter, though she doesn't offer too many examples of the "Rashomon"-like nature of this story. She's more interested in letting her two fathers, her siblings, her mother's friends and others tell her what they know -- or think they know.

Over time, a picture develops of Diane Polley, who decided to conceal her extramarital affair and the fact it produced a child. But as the man with whom she had the affair notes, Diane isn't around to tell the part of the story that only she can tell.

In fact, what Sarah Polley has ultimately made -- well, one of the many things she's made here -- is a love letter to the man who raised her, single-handedly, after her mother died. Michael's reaction to the news is almost as surprising as the news itself. It certainly proves Tolstoy's dictum that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

I'm not revealing the father in the hopes you won't do research beforehand, as it comes as rather a surprise in the film. In fact, I'm refraining from revealing many of the details contained within at all. It's better to experience the news as Polley herself did -- though, of course, no audience member will feel anything like what the woman herself did upon learning her origins were not at all what she thought they were. The surprises continue to stack up, even after the "big one" is revealed. There's a final funny one in the last few seconds of the film and then one about the film itself during the credits.

Sarah Polley has always seemed wise beyond her years, from her start as "The Story Girl" in "Road to Avonlea" to her wise directorial debut about age and memory, centered on a woman with Alzheimer's. We should all hope she tells us many more stories, whether they're real or not.