Sarah Polley has always been an exceptional actor. Part of why she's so compelling to watch is that she's willing to utilize her anger. As a director, Polley continues to be unafraid of anger as a tool; her outstanding Take This Waltz practically seethed with directorial outrage at the decisions the protagonist was making. Rage isn't the only ingredient to her successes, of course; Polley displays great empathy and confidence as an actor and a director.
Polley demonstrates confidence with her first documentary, too, though perhaps some of that confidence stems from the fact that she's working with such a familiar cast. Stories We Tell is made up of a series of interviews with Polley's family and friends of her family about her mother, who died young and left behind many secrets, including the identity of Polley's biological father. It's a movie that slides easily between warmth and prickliness. I don't want to tell too much, but trust me when I say that secrets are revealed and emotions run high, the way they do when families gather for Christmases, weddings, and funerals.
From the too-passive, highly inexact title on down, Polley spends a bit too much time explaining the power of stories when she already ably demonstrates the power of stories with her story. You can't blame Polley for trying to reach for some cosmic truths as an excuse to lay bare her family history, but there's more pleasure to be found in the wry humor of her siblings, or her father's twinkling spryness, than a dozen overcooked life lessons. But that's a minor quibble: Ultimately, Stories We Tell is a moving, generous account of the kind of love and forgiveness that comes only from families, and the fact that Polley doesn't always manage to disguise her anger at her family makes it feel like a daring bit of honesty, too.