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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Stories We Tell' mixes reality TV, investigative documentary

Stories We Tell

(PG-13)

3 and 1/2 out of 4 stars

Based on her show-biz lineage, it's easy to see why actress-turned-director Sarah Polley chose to make this movie. Unlike anything you have ever seen, "Stories We Tell" is equal parts reality TV and confessional/investigative documentary. If it had been made up from whole cloth, few would've believed it, but because it wasn't it becomes all that more enthralling.

A pale blonde with high cheekbones and knowing, deep-set eyes, Polley (if she had wanted to be "polished" by the Hollywood hit factory) could have become her generation's Michelle Pfeiffer. Instead, she cherry-picked roles in a few indie gems ("The Sweet Hereafter," "eXistenZ," "Go") which allowed her just enough industry credibility to go behind the camera.

First was "Guinevere," which showed immense potential, then the Oscar-nominated "Away From Her," still the finest film ever made depicting advanced senior-age mental illness. Next was the misunderstood but still engaging "Take This Waltz." If she sticks to her current career trajectory, Polley could wind up becoming her generation's Martin Scorsese.

In a manner not unlike that depicted in "Italian American," Scorsese's early experimental film, "Stories We Tell" includes the director as a principal participant, but only from the outside. Polley appears onscreen infrequently but is heard offscreen as the interviewer, questioning -- sometimes peppering -- her own blood relatives about their family's checkered past, with answers that most of us would not reveal in the dark, alone, with the lights off and a gun to the temple.

This is high-wire, without-a-net filmmaking and what's most impressive about it is that Polley has the most to lose and the least to gain. Even though it was carefully edited in post-production, we can tell it was completely unscripted and was essentially a work-in-progress as it was being made. Polley didn't know the outcome or "big reveal" while she was filming it and took huge chances by interviewing those closest to her to bare their souls. Try to do this type of thing with most families and they would become decidedly and permanently unglued. It takes a tight-knit group of folks to go through this kind of probing and come out on the other side intact.

Just what the question for which Polley is searching for an answer might be found in other reviews, but not here. Because she waits until early in the second act to finally get around to revealing her mission -- and does so with such brilliant storytelling acumen -- she and her story should not be compromised.

(Note: unavoidable spoiler alert coming up. If you wish to avoid it, please skip to the next paragraph.) One of the key figures in Polley's mystery is her mother Diane, an actress who died when Polley was 11. It would be next to impossible to tell the whole story without referencing Diane and Polley does so with newly photographed Super-8 (and later distressed) recreations of scenes featuring Diane as portrayed by actress Rebecca Jenkins. Not only does Jenkins look eerily like she could actually be Polley's mother, the care and detail Polley put into these dramatic recreations is meticulous; you can't tell that they're staged or have been recently filmed.

Apart from Polley herself, the most important figure in the film is Diane's widower, the British-born actor Michael Polley. With a deep, rich baritone that conjures Anthony Hopkins, Richard Burton or Peter O'Toole, Michael Polley -- in a manner not unlike that of the audience -- is being led by Sarah Polley down a path to an unknown destination. She frequently interrupts him on camera and leaves it in -- something that is highly irregular in any film -- but, as we eventually discover, makes all kinds of sense.

If you decide to check out "Stories We Tell," please go in with the idea you'll be seeing a high-end home movie that could be a potentially trashy American TV reality show which has been revamped and lent a certain level of class, decorum and painstaking attention usually reserved for English "Masterpiece Theater," HBO or PBS productions. Polley's reasons for making it will become more than clear in the rearview mirror and -- if you like -- it is the perfect, soul-salvaging, alternate-universe answer to "Keeping up with the Kardashians." (Roadhouse Attractions)