Sarah Polley's fascinating documentary “Stories We Tell,” opening Friday, offers many storylines worth discussing. The actress/filmmaker, who uses the movie to pursue the real identity of her father and the truth about her late mother's life, easily has the brains to put her mouth where her money is. Yet our interview at the Hotel Palomar comes to new and unexpected life at the mention of one of Polley's countrymen: Justin Bieber.
“I feel like he’s been really mistreated,” the 34-year-old director (“Away From Her,” “Take This Waltz”), who lives in her native Toronto, says with a laugh. “It makes me really sad. [He’s] somebody who had their entire childhood taken from them ... And the fact that he's wigging out a little bit more than most 19-year-olds right now is not at all surprising. He's within his rights, and he should have five years of license to behave any way he wants.”
I note that Polley (seen in “The Sweet Hereafter” and “Go”) was famous in her teens and turned out fine. Not every young girl in the world was in love with her, she counters. As might be expected from anyone with a young child herself—Polley's left hand still bears a star stamp from taking her daughter to the Chicago Children's Museum—she brings the issue back to parenting, and encouraging performance without forcing adult pressures on teenagers. “Why not let them have a childhood?” the filmmaker asks. “When our kids say, ‘I want to be a doctor or a fireman,’ you’re like, ‘Yeah, you can be,’ not, ‘OK, let's support you to do that at 12 years old because that's your passion.’”
Family has been on Polley's mind a lot lately. She spent about five years making “Stories We Tell,” which features interviews with her family members as she seeks to learn more about her mom (who passed away when Polley was 11) and follows up on years of family rumors about how she doesn’t look like her siblings. Numerous times during the process, the director nearly quit.
“There was just this general feeling of nausea around, this inevitable feeling of, 'Oh my God, I've involved all these people in telling this story; what if some of them regret having it out there?’” she says. “’What if my siblings regret having spoken about this?’”
Fortunately for her, nearly all of Polley’s family immediately agreed to participate—she didn't pressure the few possible participants who declined—and approved of the finished product. Despite her own frequent reservations, Polley pushed forward, almost out of a sense of being glued to the screen from behind the camera. “There was such a process of discovery and not knowing where it was going and letting it form and it changing gears and changing directions so much that I kind of wanted to know what happened,” she says. “It was hard to walk away from it when I didn't yet know what it was going to be.”
Her inquisitiveness comes naturally—Polley’s one of the few interview subjects who wants to know background information about her interviewers. She has explored issues of fidelity and family turmoil in her other films as well but claims any parallel between “Stories We Tell” and “Take This Waltz,” in which a woman (Michelle Williams) contemplates cheating on her husband (Seth Rogen), was unconscious.
Polley now recognizes there are echoes, though. “Subconsciously I must have been really influenced by my parents' story on some level,” she says. “I think that a lot of filmmakers return to the same territory over and over, and usually it's probably because there's something in them or in their past that they're trying to get, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
Much of those issues deal with memory and the elusiveness of truth about the past, something Polley says is backed up by science. She cites a recent article that indicates when we remember something, we're not actually remembering it. We’re recalling the last time we remembered the event. “It's like a game of broken telephone with yourself,” she says. “So I think that we're crazy to think that we have the truth, and everybody else is wrong.”
Regardless, “Stories We Tell” has exposed Polley’s family life to the world, and other families’ lives to her. Rather than reacting to the film, people often share their own stories with Polley after screenings.
I’m more interested in her real-life, “Mamma Mia”-like quest for genetic confirmation. (Polley says she saw the Abba musical recently and couldn’t believe the similarities, albeit with less singing in her film.) Has she heard that Khloe Kardashian has long been dogged by the same rumors about possibly having a different father?
“I think I'm going to seem like I live under a rock right now,” says Polley, noting that she could probably identify Kim but not the Kardashians and has no advice for Khloe. If there was a reality TV show being made about Polley, she might not have conducted her documentary investigation.
Then again, Polley’s life was somewhat public at 19 or 20, and she freaked out even more than the Biebs, with incidents “that actually affected people more deeply than going shirtless through an airport lineup.”
She doesn’t want to listen to his music but would be glad to talk to him about his problems. He wouldn’t be the first to open up to her.
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