YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollectionsMovies_now

Sarah Polley explores her uprooted, twisted family tree

The actress-director was shocked when she found out at age 28 that Michael Polley was not her biological father. She explores the family secret in 'Stories We Tell.'

May 11, 2013|By Nicole Sperling, Los Angeles Times
  • Sarah Polley at the Avalon Hotel in Beverly Hills.
Sarah Polley at the Avalon Hotel in Beverly Hills. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

Two days after her 11th birthday, Sarah Polley lost her mother to cancer. The death came as a shock, even though her father and older siblings had watched Diane Polley battle the disease for months. As she grew up in Toronto under the care of her father, Michael, Polley's conception of her mother was fuzzily constructed from memories, photographs and family stories.

Nevertheless, she followed her mother's footsteps into acting, taking to the Canadian stage as a child and at 18 catching the attention of U.S. audiences after her role in "The Sweet Hereafter."

A decade later, hours before she was to introduce a Montreal screening of "Away From Her" — her first film as a director and one that would land her an Oscar nomination — a secret that had been buried all of her 28 years suddenly burst into the open: Michael Polley was not her biological father.

PHOTOS: Hollywood backlot moments

The revelation sent Polley reeling: If her father was not her father, then who was her mother, and what did that mean about her own identity?

In a new, extremely intimate documentary five years in the making, Polley searches for her own answers while posing universal and sometimes uncomfortable questions about betrayal, identity and the definition of family. Manipulating even as it exposes, "Stories We Tell" is a provocative, genre-bending documentary that examines how we construct personal narratives and shows Polley struggling with her own.

Shocking news

The revelation of Polley's true parentage landed her in bed for two weeks, ill with a long fever. "My body went into shock and sickness, and every time I've gone to Montreal since then, I get really sick," she said. "I think it's a lot to absorb and kinda difficult."

The news also sent ripples through her extended family, with the story being told and examined from multiple points of view by her four older brothers and sisters, her uncle, her mother's friends and others. Like an elaborate game of telephone, everyone had a slightly different take upon learning the identity of Sarah's biological father.

Michael Polley was jolted into restarting a long-dormant writing career, penning nearly 80 pages of copy with details of the story from his perspective. Sarah Polley's biological father also took to the computer, creating his own narrative of the events that eventually led him to reveal his identity to her in Montreal.

Polley and her siblings found the story becoming the focus of many a dinner party, with each of them highlighting a different aspect of the tale as it related to their own history. The filmmaker realized this was something worthy of more detailed exploration — and a documentary was born.

FULL COVERAGE: Summer Sneaks

"I wasn't interested in exposing myself," said Polley, 34, whose diminutive stature belies a striking ambition. "What got me interested was my father's unusual and unexpected response to the news. And my biological father was also writing about it. There were all these weird discrepancies in the stories, and we were also all so invested in telling it. It was really interesting to have a big drama in your own life, and have this need to make it into narrative."

For the next five years, Polley dived deep into her family history, weaving footage from home Super 8 movies and old photographs with confessional interviews from brothers John Buchan and Mark Polley, sisters Susy Buchan and Joanna Polley, plus Michael Polley and her biological father, among others. She also peels back the filmmaking process, filming set-up shots and voice-over sessions while obfuscating other details, particularly her personal response to the shocking revelation.

Critics have responded to "Stories We Tell" as a significant step in Polley's evolution as a filmmaker. Early reviews out of last year's Telluride and Toronto film festivals were glowing. Indiewire called it "the finest of Polley's filmmaking skills" while New York Magazine's David Edelstein referred to Polley as a "gifted actress and possibly more gifted writer-director."

Director Atom Egoyan, who cast Polley in "The Sweet Hereafter" and has remained close to the actress, said he was astounded by her progress as a director.

"When I saw 'Away From Her,' I thought, 'Well, this isn't a surprise that someone who's such a great actor would be able to create such amazing performances and have such a rapport with her cast,'" Egoyan said, referring to Polley's directorial debut, which centered on the deterioration of a couple in the face of Alzheimer's and landed actress Julie Christie an Oscar nomination for lead actress.

"But this film is a shock because it's such a sophisticated piece of filmmaking," he added, "both in terms of the ambition and the success with which it's able to deploy this very original idea. It's completely unlike any other film I've seen."

Reliving the pain

Despite Polley's comfort in front of the camera, turning her lens inward was no easy feat.

Los Angeles Times Articles