Capturing the Polleys
by Thomas Delapa
For critics and serious filmgoers who’ve given up on the Academy Awards, especially after last year's Seth MacFarlane fatuous hosting fiasco, here’s another reason to shrug and say "I told you so": Despite being one of the best and most talked-about documentaries of 2013, Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell was shockingly shut out of the Oscar nominations.
The Canadian actress/director may take cold comfort in the fact that the Oscars have regularly been on the wrong side of cinema history. Leading the nominations for worst Oscar snubs: Alfred Hitchcock (nil directing awards), Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather (loser to Cabaret’s Bob Fosse), and the snub of all snubs, Orson Welles’ nonpareil Citizen Kane bested by How Green Was My Valley. Vice versa, does anyone outside of Robert Osborne remember the lachrymose Luise Rainer, winner of back-to-back best actress Oscars in the 1930s? And post Y2K, let’s just fugetabout The Departed, the noxious 2006 best picture winner that should be left to sleep with the fishes.
Almost as myopic in Oscar oversights have been the erratic, often obscure choices over the decades in the Best Foreign Film category. Since the Academy only allows one entry per country each year, voters are forced to dole out the nominations in globally “let’s all share” fashion, not so unlike ribbons handed out to all the kiddies on Field Day. While films from major directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Bresson and Japan's Yasujiro Ozu have never been nominated, most of the nominees—and more than a few winners— have faded out in movie memory.
Polley can also take some solace in her own award for Best Canadian Film (and the $100,000 prize that went with it), while U.S. audiences can now see her extraordinary narrative recounted on DVD. In our era of one-sided, deceptively manipulated “docu-fictions,” Polley lyrically reconstructs (and deconstructs) an extremely personal story, generously bringing in a kaleidoscope of disparate, sometimes contradictory viewpoints.
In a near oedipal odyssey, Polley documents her search to uncover a maternal secret that lay hidden in her family's closet for 28 years. The main character in the mystery is Polley’s mother Diane, a onetime Toronto casting director and actress. While not literally present to tell her own story, Polley mere nostalgically appears in a series of glowing home movies (some actually recreated). At the other end of the Freudian spectrum is Polley’s dad Michael, a British-born actor who settled in Toronto in the 1950s to marry and raise a family.
A la Charles Foster Kane, the life of Diane Polley is reconstructed, in jigsaw-puzzle fashion, by those who knew her best as well as by those only on the family’s borders. Vivacious and rebellious, Diane was a woman before her time, unhappy with the rigid roles of middle-class marriage and family, yet also, by most accounts, a loving if mercurial wife and mother.
A clever raconteur, Polley reveals key facts of her chronicle in measured doses, never letting us know too much of this remarkable, often touching saga at once. A 3-D puzzle of sorts (without those silly glasses), the film is skillfully glued together with a complex array of stylistic devices, from competing voice-overs (one from a prepared script read by Michael Polley) and disjunctive dubbed dialogue to standard talking-heads interviews, punctuated with lingering close-ups that speak volumes.
Polley is also smart enough to realize that “truth” is often, um, relative, particularly when people have something to gain or hide—Rashomon told us that. But in this meta-home movie that continually examines its own assumptions (sometimes to a fault), Polley unveils not simply the small story of one woman’s family secret, but by extension poignantly leads us to bigger, roomier stories about marriage, motherhood, love and life itself.