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'Stories We Tell' delves into riddles of family

| Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013, 8:31 p.m.

Sarah Polley's documentary “Stories We Tell” examines families, legacies and the slippery nature of truth in ways so unexpected, we aren't even aware of them until the film is over.

What a great movie.

It starts out as the story of Polley's offbeat, life-of-the-party mother, Diane. She did some local acting but devoted a lot of time to her growing family. This did not preclude taking the occasional acting gig in other cities. Polley's father, her siblings and old friends of Diane's recall her with an excitement that obviously has not diminished, even though Diane died in 1990, when Sarah was 11.

We also see Super 8 footage of Diane, drinking and smoking (always smoking), dancing at parties, performing in stage productions, swimming in the pool with the kids. Everything seems to revolve around her. “Eccentric” is probably too strong a word for the woman we see described, but “different” is certainly fair.

There is, of course, more to the story. Much, much more, most of which should be discovered by watching the film. Like any family, the Polleys have their secrets, although theirs are a little juicier. It's not quite “Rashomon,” but we do hear the central family story told from several vantage points. The interviews are charming, as one child remembers one crazy story about Diane, then another child comes up with another. Sarah, too, comes in for some good-natured ribbing. Why on Earth would anyone care about their family, they wonder?

Even though the story concerns her deeply and ultimately, in many ways, is about her, Sarah does not participate in relating the memories. For the most part, she remains merely an observer, as if this deepening mystery concerned someone else, not her.

Which is fascinating in its own right. In one part of the movie, her father, Michael, himself an actor, reads in a recording studio his version of the events that make up the family's story. He's a pro; you don't expect him to break down or hesitate. But on the other side of the recording booth sits Sarah, watching impassively as Michael relates stunning details about his wife, about Sarah, about their lives together.

What must Sarah be feeling? We can't know, because she betrays nothing. The only reaction she has is to occasionally ask Michael to repeat a line for clarity.

Above all of this floats the spirit, and, occasionally, the image, of Diane. As the film digs deeper into her life, not all of the anecdotes are so cheery or funny. Every person interviewed in this movie has an obvious abiding love for her, but the exasperating nature of being in any kind of relationship with her also is evident.

Polley, an actress, also directed “Away From Her” and “Take This Waltz,” both outstanding. But with “Stories We Tell” she elevates her already-high standards.

Many secrets await your discovery, which should be clear by now. Not just in the details I'm not revealing here, but the way in which Polley tells her story. Not everything is quite what it seems. If this is a maddening way of talking about the movie, good. It's meant to be. Because watching Sarah Polley solve the riddles in “Stories We Tell” is one of the most satisfying movie experiences I've had in a long time.

Bill Goodykoontz is a staff writer for the Arizona Republic.

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