Family histories usually only fascinate members of the families involved. Unless your great-grandfather was, say, Woodrow Wilson, your Ancestry.com search will inspire the same level of interest in friends as your vacation photos.
Sarah Polley's actor parents were barely famous, and only in Canada at that. But their daughter, an acclaimed actress ("Go," "The Sweet Hereafter") and director ("Away From Her"), takes such a fresh, inclusive approach to their history and hers that her family documentary "Stories We Tell" holds universal appeal.
Director Polley plays with documentary conventions in her emotionally intimate but philosophically expansive film. She interviews several subjects at length about her mother Diane Polley, an actress and casting director who died of cancer when Polley was 11 then suggests that because each subject only speaks from individual experience, the whole truth remains elusive.
This is not to say that her subjects spin tales. But memories from 20 or 30 years ago (Polley is 34) can fade or become clouded by one's emotional connections or desire to entertain with a story. People also block out information that might cause pain to loved ones information such as the suspicion that Michael Polley, the actor and writer who raised Sarah, might not be her biological father.
That question bubbled up in joke form when Polley was growing up in Toronto. Her siblings would remark about how little she resembled Michael.
"Stories" pursues the paternity question more seriously, potentially endangering the filmmaker's relationship to her father and the family members' image of Diane.
That Sarah Polley doesn't put her own emotional response at the forefront during this pursuit testifies to her skill as a documentarian. Rather than indulge in "confessional" moments, she continues her big-tent approach to storytelling, gathering the reactions of her intimates to her progress.
Yet "Stories" remains Polley's story, because she shaped how it is told. The great conceit of Polley's theories of perspective and truth is that she, as director, ultimately controlled everyone's memories because she arranged them on film.
Her filmmaking approach appears so informal that her mastery does not become fully evident until the credits roll. She shows her siblings, pre-interview, adjusting their clothing for the camera. She asks what they think of the documentary, and her sister wonders if anyone will care about their family.
Anecdotes about Diane's big laugh, zest for life and frustration with her non- demonstrative husband play over old home-movie footage of Diane, who, like Sarah, was a blond beauty with a soulful face.
Polley's egalitarian approach to interviews belies her craft. Diane's relatives and friends are forthcoming with memories, but Polley less so in framing them. She omits big details from interviews only to introduce them later, when they better serve her narrative.
What could be viewed as manipulation emerges instead as great editing. The paternity question, though inherently intriguing, could not have sustained interest for this film's nearly two-hour run time.
Polley holds our interest with her careful orchestration of talking-head footage and by showcasing the storytelling skills of a few people closest to Diane. Like her, they are show people and love a good story.
Chief among them is the British-born Michael, who speaks with wisdom and regret about his life with Diane. Michael first intrigued Diane when she saw him act in a play in Toronto. But after they married, he curbed his artistic ambitions to work in insurance and support his family.
Diane was disappointed he did not keep writing, and that he was not the exciting guy she saw on stage. Rather, he was a double whammy for a wife who craved engagement and new experiences an emotionally distant homebody.
Michael apparently stored up the effort he did not make for his wife so he could later make it for Sarah. He tackles difficult emotional topics on camera for his daughter's sake, showing obvious love as he does it.
Family revelations within "Stories" reignited Michael's passion for writing. He reads aloud a missive he wrote to Sarah that highlights his affection for her and also shows the clear origins of Sarah's storytelling skills.
STORIES WE TELL
Director: Sarah Polley
PG-13 (thematic elements involving sexuality, brief strong language, smoking)
Call The Bee's Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118.. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.