Family secrets uncovered in gripping 'Stories We Tell'

Review • Filmmaker sorts out truth, lies and what's in between.
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There's an old story in which someone says, "How do you know your daddy's your daddy? Because your mama told you so."

But how does someone approach that question if Mama's no longer around?

The Canadian actress and filmmaker Sarah Polley uncovers truths —and twists a few lies — in her fascinating but sometimes maddening documentary "Stories We Tell." She shakes her family tree, and shakes up the notion of what a documentary is, as she finds some juicy tales.

Polley (who directed "Away From Her" and "Take This Waltz") interviews her father, Michael, and her siblings to unravel the biggest mystery in her life: understanding the personality of her mother, Diane, who died when Sarah was 11.

It's a portrait of a vivacious life-of-the-party woman who was an odd match for the introspective Michael. Diane and Michael met as actors in Toronto, and some relations and family friends speculate Diane fell in love with the rugged character Michael played more than the man himself.

The other family speculation focuses on whether Diane once had an affair in Montreal and whether Sarah's biological father is someone besides Michael.

Polley's approach is multifaceted, but sometimes puzzling. She interviews Michael, her siblings, family friends who worked with or partied with Diane. She enlists Michael to narrate the film, using his unpublished memoir, to fill in details. And she employs a combination of restaged events (such as her fateful lunch with one of Diane's old friends) and what seems to be an unbelievable amount of home-movie footage.

In uncovering her mother's secrets, Polley at first seems earnest in her pursuit of the truth. But as the movie progresses, we start to see her as a master manipulator — such as when she directs her dad's narration in a recording studio.

Polley ultimately reveals that her motive in "Stories We Tell" isn't merely to find the truth — that's too linear and limiting. Instead she tries to explore how the act of telling stories about ourselves can turn personal history into family mythology. While it turns out to be a bigger question than she can answer, it is still worth asking.

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'Stories We Tell'

Filmmaker Sarah Polley finds secrets in her family history, in this sometimes genre-stretching documentary.

Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas

When • Opens Friday, June 7.

Rating • PG-13 for thematic elements involving sexuality, brief strong language and smoking.

Running time • 108 minutes.