Stories We Tell review

All about my mother...

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Sarah Polley’s dramatic features, Away From Her and Take This Waltz , established the Canadian actor/director as an even-handed chronicler of the restless heart’s mixed motives.

Aiming her clear, compassionate eye at the mysteries surrounding her late mother, Polley’s documentary is a family memoir like no other, dancing around the form the way Waltz did with romcom basics.

First it’s a family-tree detective story, then a playful meta-movie, then a maternal melodrama. and along the way, it weaves strong feelings into a dissection of storytelling and truth. That it never behaves as expected is fair warning that it’s best to avoid spoilers.

Just know that Polley gathers generations of family members to assemble a portrait of her mum, Diane, an actor who died when Sarah was 11 and, depending on who’s asked, may have been tirelessly vivacious or restlessly frustrated.

Either way, the multiplicity of voices never privileges one view, instead giving every contributor their due.

Haunting Super-8 footage further complicates the “truth”: Polley Jr recreating much of it with actor Rebecca Jenkins. Which isn’t to say the feelings at stake are nebulous.

One contributor calls the approach “woolly” (Polley doesn’t censor criticism), but the surprises involving Diane’s tragedies and romantic tangles throw some serious emotional sucker-punches.

Diane’s former husband Michael jokes through swallowed tears that Polley Jr must be some kind of sado-voyeur; Sarah worries she’s naval-gazing.

But she serves food for the head as well as the heart. The insights into identity and storytelling are hinged on a debate with an ageing friend over the ‘ownership’ of memory.

Best of all, Polley Jr never struggles under the weight of her ambition, bringing a light touch to hefty material. The biggest twist here might be the one cheekily slipped into the credits, opening up whole new avenues of stories.

After this multi-layered revelation, you’d happily hear more.

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Freelance writer

Kevin Harley is a freelance journalist with bylines at Total Film, Radio Times, The List, and others, specializing in film and music coverage. He can most commonly be found writing movie reviews and previews at GamesRadar+.