(2013) Documentary (Roadside Attractions) Sarah Polley, Michael Polley, Diane Polley, John Buchan, Harry Gulkin, Mark Polley, Geoffrey Bowes, Joanna Polley, Susy Buchan, Cathy Gulkin, Anne Tait, Claire Walker, Marie Murphy, Mort Ransen, Pixie Bigelow, Robert Macmillan, Tom Butler, Deirdre Bowen, Rebecca Jenkins, Peter Evans, Alex Hatz, Mairtin O’Carrigan. Directed by Sarah Polley
There is a maxim in law enforcement that eyewitness testimony is generally unreliable. That is because human memory is generally unreliable; it is shaded too much by our perceptions of things and people. A liberal for example will have a different point of view of President Barack Obama than a conservative would and not just politically – the man as a person as well.
This also goes for our personal memories. Oscar-nominated director Sarah Polley (Away From Her, a movie that you definitely should check out) turns the cameras on her own family. Her mother Diane passed away when Sarah was only 11 but remained a huge presence in her life. Her family members and family friends describe Diane as a “Good time Charley,” someone who loves to dance and be around people, whose heavy walk would cause records to skip.
Her four children – Sarah and Mark, along with John and Susy who were Diane’s children from a first marriage – clearly adored her but the more that everyone talks about Diane the more clear it becomes that nobody truly knew her well.
We get bits and pieces of the story – her marriage to Michael, a stage actor in Toronto who shared a stage with her and eventually a life – and how truly mis-matched they were as a couple, with Michael preferring solitude and self-reflection, her first marriage to an abusive husband who eventually divorced her and the consequences of her actions. How both Diane and Michael gave up acting to raise a family, although Diane later returned to it.
On paper, this sounds fairly boring and self-indulgent. Trust me, it is far from that. Like most people, Diane harbored secrets (although at least one of her friends stated with absolute certainty that she was so open that she kept no secrets) and some of them are shockers. A Google search will reveal some of them but I urge you not to if you intend to see the movie – the film is far more effective that way.
The movie isn’t so much about Sarah but about the persistence of memory. It is about her family yes but inasmuch as her family are characters in the story. The story may change from teller to teller but it is essentially all part of a larger truth. One of the interviewees (Polley calls them “interrogations” which I suppose is accurate) is loathe to have others tell this story, because he feels that only the two main characters who were involved in it really can get at the truth (he refers to it as hitting bottom) but that’s not quite true – things have a way of creating a ripple effect and affecting more than just the people immediately involved.
Her father Michael does the narration, much of it from a recording studio and from his own memoirs. That is fitting enough and he makes a charming narrator. The love Sarah has for her dad is clear and unequivocal. However, it should be pointed out that her second love is filmmaking and the movie is about that too – we see her setting up shots, taking part in interviews, a kind of in-movie “Making of” feature that we usually have to wait for the home video edition to come out in order to see. While family home movies and photos add to the film, Polley also re-creates some home movies on Super 8 with actors playing her family members in the 60s and 70s which are integrated seamlessly into the movie.
Early on in the film one of Sarah’s siblings asks “Why would anyone be interested in our family?” and the question hangs over much of the first part of the movie, particularly during the slow moving first reel when Diane is being reminisced about. I think Sarah’s aim was to provide as complete a background of who Diane was in order to provide some context for the rest of the film, but it does go on a bit longer than I thought it should.
By the end of the movie however the question becomes more or less moot. All of us can look at our family and find a story there – maybe one not quite like this one, but one nevertheless as interesting and vital to ourselves as the Polley story is to their family. It would be quite an interesting exercise to do something similar in your own family – take a story well known to all and quiz different members of the family on what happened. The results might surprise you and change your own outlook on things that happened to you – and grant you a new understanding of who you are and where you came from.
REASONS TO GO: Appeals to head as well as heart. Illustrates how events and outlook change with the witness.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be a hair too long.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes here are pretty adult; there is some sexuality and some bad language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actors playing Frances’ parents are actually actress Greta Gerwig’s parents.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100; thus far one of the best-reviewed movies of the year.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rashomon
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: A Dangerous Method