Stories We Tell 2013 ***


Actress Sarah Polley has made quite a career for herself as an actress in popular movies like the Dawn of The Dead reboot, and as a director with Away From Her and Take This Waltz. For the documentary film, she turns the camera on herself and her own family, and documents her own search for her real father. Using home movies, she builds up a picture of her mother and family life, then embarks on a series of interviews with her adoptive dad and the man she believes his her real father. Stories We Tell ruminates intelligently on the way people can lie to themselves about who we are, and Polley includes herself in this equation; she demonstrates how she has to fake elements of the story to deal with them. Where most documentaries happily take on the mantle of truth, Polley’s film looks with admirable honesty at the nature of lies and why we need them to survive.

Exotica 1994 ****


The title Exotica has a double meaning; not only does writer/director Atom Egoyan focus on the exotic dancers of the Exotica nightclub on the outskirts of Toronto, but the pet-shop run by Thomas (Don McKeller) is funded through the illegal import of bird’s eggs. This playfulness is part of the ingenious notion of Egoyan’s thriller. He intercuts a developing triangle of unrequited lust, as auditor (Bruce Greenwood) enjoys nightly dances from Christina (Mia Kirschner) under the watchful eye of club DJ Eric (Elias Koteas), with a search for a missing girl’s body. Whether this search happens before or after the club tensions is initially unclear, but that’s part of Egoyan’s game; he misdirects the audience brilliantly into expecting a different story to the one he delivers. Greenwood is excellent as a father with a dark past, and there’s a telling role from Sarah Polley as his niece.  Exotica is a brilliant low-budget noir, moody and provocative, but humane in its message.

The Sweet Hereafter 1997 ***


Armenian director Atom Egoyan’s output is patchy; his best work, like Exotica, is dense and brilliant, but his willingness to look at the darker side of work has kept him well away from the mainstream. His 1997 adaptation of Russell Banks novel  is a sober, sobering drama about a small town where a generation of schoolchildren have died in a bus accident. Into the town comes Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm), an insurance investigator who has troubles of his own; he saved his own daughter years previously, but has become detached and removed from her. Stevens begins to work his way through the accounts of the grieving parents, and Egoyan skilfully uses flashbacks to skip back and forward to the town pore-accident and the aftermath. The use of Robert Browning’s poem about the Pied Piper is one of the few obvious clues to Egoyan’s intent; The Sweet Hereafter is a haunting lament for lost innocence. Bruce Greenwood and Sarah Polley are amongst the supporting cast.

Go 1999 ****


Bridging the gap in Doug Liman’s progress from indie kid (Swingers) to blockbuster director (The Bourne Identity, Mr and Mrs Smith), Go is one of the few Pulp Fiction-style films that really works. Three stories are interlaced in time via John August’s script, but the central element is a drug deal in LA one Christmas Eve. Sarah Polley plays Ronna, a check out girl who is covering for dealer Simon (Desmond Askew) and when two customers hit her up for pills, decides to make some money by trying her luck as his profession. She’s quickly out of her depth in her interaction with professional dealer Todd (Timothy Olyphant). Intercut with Ronna’s problems are Simon’s trip to Las Vegas and the adventures of Ronna’s customers Adam (Scott Wolf) and Zack (Jay Mohr), with August’s script cleverly drawing the disparate threads back together. Go has energy, neat performances, an original idea and plenty of off-beat notions; the story might be about teenagers looking for cheap thrills, but Liman’s film is an adrenaline rush for all ages to enjoy.

Away From Her 2006 ***


Adapted with great sensitivity from Alice Munro’s short story The Bear Came Over The Mountain, Sarah Polley’s directorial debut rises far above the disease-of-the-week TV movie genre. Set in a snowy Ontario, Polley’s script depicts the internal angst of Grant Anderson (Gordon Pinsnet), who notices that his wife Fiona (Julie Christie) is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Reluctantly accepting the need for Fiona to be in a residential home, Gordon has to face a stark reality when it becomes apparent that his beautiful wife has forgotten his caring touch, and started a relationship with another man. Mental illness is often stigmatized in cinema, but Polley takes a less judgmental tack, sticking closely to the emotional journey of her characters and maintaining sympathy for all parties in an unusual take on sexual jealousy. Pinsent and Christie are magnificent, capturing all the nuances of a sophisticated relationship foundering on the rocks of a difficult reality.

My Life Without Me 2003 ***


Writer/director Isabel Coixet’s 2003 adaptation of Nanci Kincaid’s short story might look on paper like a conventional weepie, but it’s nothing of the sort. Sarah Polley plays Ann, a young mother of two who discovers that she has terminal cancer, and decides to get on with her life with a vigor that that previously escaped her. Never as sentimental as the ‘bucket list’ storyline suggests, Coixet’s film features Scott Speedman as Ann’s husband, Mark Ruffalo as a lover, and Debbie Harry as he caustic mother. Each character manages to be more than a stereotype; My Life Without Me is a tear-jerker that never strays into schmaltz.

Last Night 1998 ***


Writer director and star Don McKellar summed up the pre-millennium angst of 1998 with this moody, multi-character drama. Last Night focuses on the last evening of planet earth, and follows a selection of Toronto residents as they try and find some accommodation with themselves as the world ends. McKellar calls in support from fellow Canadian directors Sarah Polley and David Cronenberg in supporting roles, as well as Sideways star Sandra Oh. A cold, reflective piece, McKellar’s intimate film sits nicely alongside melancholia as an end-of-the-world piece that ducks sci-fi cliché in favour of existential angst.