The Claim takes shape from two sources. The plot is from Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, a great and beautiful novel that seems reasonably available for adaptation to the frozen California Gold Rush era. The style is taken from Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, that gorgeous 1971 revisionist western shot in the Northwest rain and snow.
Sarah Polley has been an actress from almost the time she could speak. The daughter of two actors in Toronto, Canada, she attended her first audition when she was five years old and made her feature debut at age six in the film One Magic Christmas. As a child she starred in the TV shows Ramona and Avonlea and in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and as a young adult she earned a reputation is one of the most interesting and talented actresses of her generation for performances in The Sweet Hereafter and Go, but she has consistently shied away from the media spotlight and splashy roles in mainstream pictures, preferring to take on challenging parts, work with interesting directors, and become a filmmaker in her own right.
Stories We Tell is Polley’s third feature as a director (after Away From Her and Take This Waltz) and her first documentary. It’s also a kind of autobiography by way of family mystery. Sarah is the youngest of the Polley siblings, born years after her older brother, and was only 11 when her mother Diane died in 1990. It was just Sarah and her father, Michael, in the house after Diane’s death. So she turns the camera on her family, interviewing brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, friends of the family, and folks whose relationship to Sarah isn’t clear until well into the film. They all tell their own stories about the vivacious and lively Diane while her father reads narration that he himself wrote, adding his own story to the mix. The film opens on Michael Polley, her father, in a recording studio with Sarah on the other side of the glass manning the controls and asking her dad, ever the professional, to retake a line or two as necessary. It’s only the first reminder that this is, as the title says, all about telling stories.
The phrase “spoiler alert” gains new currency in the realm of narrative documentary. The reveals and gotchas contained within them are probably already public record—but still, one hesitates to blow the incredible surprises of, say, Searching for Sugar Man for unsuspecting viewers. In the case of Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, we should be able to dance around the spoilers. And yet, because the actress/director wants not merely to tell a tale of her family’s life, but also to question the reliability of storytelling itself, we might wonder why old-fashioned issues such as suspense and surprise should be part of the program in the first place.
But Stories We Tell is suspenseful and surprising, even if the filmmaker might want to disown those qualities. Polley was a child star in her native Canada, won raves for her youthful roles in The Sweet Hereafter and Go, and snagged an Oscar nomination for writing Away From Her (2006), a much-liked film she also directed.