P.T. Anderson’s Love Letter to the Waterboy

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Near the climax of Punch-Drunk Love, Barry Egan takes a trip. With seven sisters who apparently can’t stop calling him “Gay Boy,” it’s clear that Barry’s life is neither peaceful nor private, and a last minute trip to Hawaii is a welcome retreat. Barry’s everyday world is oppressively claustrophobic and, from the film’s first frame, it’s clear that director Paul Thomas Anderson has a profound affection for his plight. Anderson has admitted to wanting to make an “Arthouse Adam Sandler Movie” and, in this noble effort, he was successful. Anderson’s branding of his film suggests an affection that extends beyond the character to the actor who plays him. Punch-Drunk Love is many things – a comedy, a romance, a genre exercise – but it’s ultimately a fan letter from its director to its star.

In Happy Gilmore, Adam Sandler plays a hockey player turned golfer who attacks Bob Barker in response to a slight remark; in The Waterboy, Sandler plays a twenty-something momma’s boy with intense social anxiety who harnesses his long-repressed rage to become a star tackler. Neither of these characters are far removed from Barry Egan, who cries without reason and spontaneously shatters glass doors. Paul Thomas Anderson, however, examines the Sandler persona in extreme close-up – both literally and metaphorically – where the aforementioned films stop at an arm’s length. Anderson employs a surreal and bold style that often threatens to overtake the film completely with sudden bursts of sound and color. This overwhelming style serves as a mirror for Barry’s existence and the resulting sensory overload is effectively immersive. By immersing us into Barry’s psyche, Anderson gives the whole psychological package – sadness, confusion, anger – and it becomes harder to simply point and laugh.

Some of the most memorable moments in Punch-Drunk Love involve characters screaming at each other. Whether it’s Philip Seymour Hoffman’s hot-headed Dean Trumbell, one of Barry’s teasing sisters, or Barry himself, Anderson has a clear affection for watching his characters lose their shit. Unlike similar scenes in Happy Gilmore, where the payoff is purely comic, the meltdowns in Punch-Drunk Love often walk a fine line between comedy and tragedy. After Barry finally escapes to Hawaii – explicitly telling his coworker not to tell his sisters – he’s forced to call his sister Elizabeth upon realizing he doesn’t know where Lena is staying. This already precarious situation escalates rapidly when Elizabeth innocently questions Barry’s intentions. As if a lifetime of being called “Gay Boy” suddenly boils over, Barry loses it amid a crowd of people shouting “There’s no reason for you to treat me this way, just give me the fucking number…” This outburst elicits a response that lies somewhere between shock and comic release. On one hand, it’s empowering to hear Barry speak out against his oppression; on the other hand, when his tirade escalates to “I’ll fucking kill you,” the effect is startling. This scene could easily exist in the the universe of one of Sandler’s mainstream comedies but, in this film, we’re thrust into Barry’s point of view and sympathize deeply with his struggle.

Punch-Drunk Love takes a decidedly first-person approach to its story. The film opens with a super wide shot of Barry alone in his office. He’s wearing a bright blue suit that matches the rich blue of the walls behind him. During Barry’s phone call, there’s an odd ping offscreen and we wonder for a second whether we imagined it. But then Barry suspiciously looks up and proceeds to investigate it. This sound is never explained in any logical sense, it exists purely for the purposes of getting Barry’s (and our) attention. When he walks out to the street, there’s a pause as he looks up and down the empty street. The sound fades. The industrial neighborhood is shown in wide angles to highlight the negative space around him. Suddenly a car flips and barrel rolls past him. The sound, which had previously settled to near silence, suddenly bangs and screeches at an ear-piercing volume. This incident, like the ping from earlier, has no logical explanation, the plot quickly glosses over it. These surreal moments, however, have a profound psychological effect on our immersion into Barry’s mind – we feel appropriately anxious.

Anderson chooses to immerse his audience into Barry’s mind so that we sympathize with his bizarre behaviour. The man-child that Adam Sandler has made such a bankable persona is put under a microscope and the effect is an exposure to the darkness underneath. Punch-Drunk Love remains a romantic comedy, however, because of Anderson’s profound affection for this character. A romance on multiple levels, the infatuation Barry has for Lena is a clear reflection of Anderson’s affection for Sandler.

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Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)

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Boyhood begins with a moment of profound peace. Mason (Ellar Coltrane) lies alone on fresh-cut grass staring at the sky. The shot doubles as the film’s poster and it’s probable that director Richard Linklater had this use in mind from the beginning. It’s a singular image almost anyone can identify with – literally or metaphorically – as a perfect symbol of adolescent curiosity. Mason, at only six years old, knows very little about the world around him, and with this naivety comes an endearing sense of wonder. When his mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), rudely interrupts his introspection so they can go home, the point-counterpoint of Boyhood is firmly established. Mason’s wide-eyed optimism is put to the test in Boyhood as he comes of age under the guidance of adults with their own set of problems. Boyhood is as much a meditation on time as it is on the ripple effect of our existence.

Made over a 12-year period, Boyhood offers a profoundly moving experience not far removed from this viral time-lapse video. Linklater – whose Before trilogy told a complicated love story spanning 18 years – condenses 12 years of middle American coming-of-age into 166 minutes. Arquette is arguably the movie’s biggest revelation but, as the title suggests, the star is Mason (Ellar Coltrane), who grows from an introspective pre-teen to a creative college freshmen (from Harry Potter to Kurt Vonnegut) within the three hour running time. Mason is a quiet kid, who wordlessly takes unsolicited advice from virtually every potential mentor he comes in contact with. His adolescence is – at a glance – a series of troubled men trying to tell him who to be. One particularly disturbing incident finds Olivia’s (first) alcoholic husband drunkenly shaving Mason’s head because he doesn’t like the longhaired skater persona he’s beginning to adopt. Mason’s coming of age is constantly hijacked by the identity crises of the men around him.

Richard Linklater’s films demonstrate an intuitive understanding of universally shared experience. His sensitivity to small moments of humanity coupled with a collaborative working style creates an uncanny realism. When Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) gives one of many banal lectures (“life doesn’t give you bumpers”), the perception is of a real person saying a real thing, not of a moral message being pushed by the film or its author. This authenticity is perhaps the film’s greatest achievement, as it makes Mason Jr.’s coming-of-age a profound documentary-like experience, where the effect is unfettered by the usual contrivances of plot. In the context of the Bildungsroman, or growth narrative, Boyhood is the ultimate example as it lets nature handle the growth part, leaving the narrative to be a process of selection rather than invention.

Because Boyhood is effectively built from the director’s own memories of adolescence, the reality on display is decidedly white, middle-class, and Texan. In this way, it has much in common with Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, which similarly follows a narrative trajectory governed by small moments rather than an overarching plot. In Malick’s film, the “plot” is in service of an exploration of the director’s own metaphysical questions; Linklater, on the other hand, seems to use his own subjective experience merely as a jumping off point for displaying moments of universal experience with little philosophical bias. The film is as much a meditation on memory as it is time. It is composed of seemingly non-functional details rather than turning points – the images you actually remember rather than the ones your mother puts in a scrapbook. To this effect, Mason’s high-school graduation is represented by the moment he and his friend are driving home, rather than by the ceremony itself.

In an era when even the most highly respected film artists have a hard time getting things made, Boyhood is a logistical miracle.  The project depended on a 12-year commitment from its four principle actors, two of which were pre-teens at the beginning of production, and on top of that Linklater had to convince IFC Films to provide funding for the dubious undertaking. Its success is a product of Linklater’s unpretentious curiosity about what it means to grow up in 21st century America. We can sense Linklater’s affection for Mason’s idealism, from the contemplative wallflower of the opening shot to the curious photographer of the ending, and the arc of his coming-of-age is depicted with a realism that never approaches cynicism. If there was any doubt that Richard Linklater is one of the most important directors of our time, Boyhood will surely settle the argument.

10 out of 10 

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The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance; 2013)

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I love epics. Some of my favorite films fall into this category, which I would split into two sub-groups – the messy epic and the icy epic. Wonderfully over-achieving films like Magnolia and The Tree of Life would fall into the former category while borderline unapproachable masterworks like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Stalker fall into the latter. The Place Beyond the Pines is a messy epic. With his follow up to Blue Valentine, director Derek Cianfrance swings for the fences and hits a high-flying foul. Even though Pines ultimately falls out of bounds, its reckless ambition makes up for some (emphasis on some) of its many missteps.

Pines opens with a long tracking shot following Luke (Ryan Gosling) through a crowded carnival. With his knife tricks, elaborately tattooed biceps, and dangling cigarette (doesn’t he know it’s rude to smoke around children??), Luke is framed as the ultimate badass. This brazen opening, an obvious nod to Scorsese, immediately announces huge ambitions. Luke is obsessed with his own coolness and the film seems to have a similar infatuation. It’s as if the Ryan Gosling from Drive walked straight into this film without changing a thing except his hair color.  Both films are stylized explorations of masculinity but where Gosling’s wordless non-acting complemented the heightened reality of Drive, his presence in the gritty middle America of Pines creates an awkward disparity with the realism of the rest of the film. He ultimately undermines the believability of the first act in which his authenticity is so crucial. Instead of a fascinating enigma, Luke is a blank canvas, and his storyline suffers from a lack of dramatic tension as a result. Luke isn’t a real person, he’s just a cog in the heavy-handed machine designed by the film’s screenwriters.

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The Place Beyond the Pines is essentially three movies in one. About an hour in, the focus shifts completely away from Gosling’s Luke to Avery, a rookie cop played by Bradley Cooper. Cooper is at his best here and his understated performance is especially noteworthy in lieu of the overstatement displayed in David O. Russell’s recent films. Avery is a guy desperate for self-preservation to erase the guilt that haunts him. He’s desperate for the assurance that he is a good person, and the film places him in a world where this kind of moral purity is non-existent. Avery’s ultimate solution is to exploit the people around him in so that he can achieve the respect and power he believes will solidify his moral superiority. His actions, which are constantly misinterpreted as righteous, are cowardly, and make his similarity to the sociopathic Luke clear.

Most things in Pines are made pretty clear (read: obvious) and many of the narrative leaps taken in service of lofty ideas are far-fetched. The third part of the film jumps forward 15 years and concerns the sons of Luke and Avery. In contrast to its narrative loftiness, this section fully settles into the realism that was awkward in the first act. The teens are played by Emory Cohen and Dane Dehaan and their mumbling “sup, bro” banter realistically displays the cool-guy angst of AJ and Jason. Their serendipitous meeting in the high-school cafeteria is a stretch, sure, but it’s also the kind of “Woah!” moment that makes Pines thrilling. This final section of the film is a wild card and it will lose many but, for me, it upped the stakes to an exciting level. This kind of ambition should be encouraged! Early on, the film establishes a willingness to veer left at any point, which creates an exciting unpredictability. The third act effectively doubles down on this previously established ambition and the effect is amusing even if it is unbelievable.

The Place Beyond the Pines reaches straight for the top shelf with its music. Poaching selections from Ennio Morricone and Arvo Pärt, the soundtrack is a case study in the abuse of great music. Pärt’s Fratres was also featured in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, where its lilting arpeggios blend so well that no one would ever suspect it to be different from Jonny Greenwood’s score. Blood’s score asserts an uneasy dissonance over the film, and Pärt’s piece offers a gravitas that underscores an appropriately important moment. In Pines, however, the piece’s aching melancholy – used as a repeating motif throughout the film – makes the action on screen seem desperate to be taken seriously. There are many flaws in this film, but this aural heavy-handedness is actually offensive. Music is a powerful manipulator that should be used carefully, or at least intentionally. The music in Pines makes a forceful case for the film’s intended seriousness and it ultimately distracts more than it helps.

Derek Cianfrance’s obsessions – time, family, relationships, responsibility – are clear. With his two features, Cianfrance explores these themes with the kind of confidence that recalls Paul Thomas Anderson’s early work. In the case of Anderson, his fourth film (Punch-Drunk Love) saw him toning down the overblown maximalism of Boogie Nights and Magnolia for a more focused approach. It’s my guess that we will see a similar development with Cianfrance. The Place Beyond the Pines feels like the result of a director still figuring out what he’s good at, and there’s enough there to predict greatness in the future.

6.5 out of 10 

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All is Lost (J.C. Chandor, 2013)

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When observing Robert Redford’s unnamed, mostly mute character in J.C Chandor’s brilliant All is Lost, I thought a lot about solitude. When one is completely alone, one acts differently than if they were around others (obviously). As dumb as that sounds, in the context of All is Lost - a film consisting of only one actor – the idea poses a unique challenge for Redford and Chandor. Redford presents realism in its purist form - since his character is alone, he isn’t acting for anyone, he doesn’t need to tell anyone how he feels. When he faces his first challenge – a sizable hole in the side of his boat – he doesn’t seem too worried, but how could we know? He doesn’t mutter curse words to himself, he doesn’t nervously pace around or throw things in frustration. Yet we know how he feels. This understanding is a projection, of course, and therein lies the key to the film’s success. We are given zero backstory and very little specific information about “our man” (as the credits call him), so he quickly becomes a vessel for our own experience. This is the important difference between All is Lost and Gravity - the former boldly tells us nothing while the latter awkwardly tells us too much.*

All is Lost is not formally unconventional. The movie follows the familiar trajectory of what I’ll call the “survival film.” Like J.C. Chandor’s previous film Margin Call, All is Lost demonstrates the writer/director’s strength for harnessing familiar forms to produce story-centric films. All is Lost shows this strength in its purist form. The film is bizarrely simple (again: there’s zero backstory)This narrative simplicity makes it allegorical, like a short story; Redford’s enigmatic screen presence makes it cinematic, like a movie.

If this whole one-guy-on-a-boat-for-two-hours thing sounds pretty boring, rest assured that, although this is a film about isolation, it won’t make you feel isolated. Chandor cares deeply for his audience and his film offers an experience that is as thrilling as it is thought-provoking. Like Gravity, the experience of watching All is Lost is, first and foremost, immersive and physical. The sound design is crucial to this effect and acts almost as another character, as does the beautiful score from Alex Ebert. These two elements play off each other brilliantly as the moaning and creaking of the boat’s deterioration meshes with the lush horn textures of Ebert’s music.

It can be guessed from the poster that this is a movie about the struggle to survive, but it is also a movie about the choice to survive. Throughout All is Lost, our man is constantly having to make the fundamental human choice to fight or to submit. The film’s conclusion [don't worry, no spoilers] handles this choice with a subtlety that effectively elevates the film to greatness. Just as “our man” is aptly named, I could call the ending “our ending” as it offers a conclusion whose meaning is largely dependent on our subjective experience. To me, it is a brilliantly rewarding ending to a film that is damn-near perfect.

*I don’t mean to hate on Gravity, which was one of the most thrilling movie-going experiences I’ve had this year. The script has it’s clunky moments, sure, but they are largely forgivable in the context of the movie.  I bring it up only as a means of comparison.

9 out of 10 

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Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis, 2001)

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In the opening minutes of Trouble Every Day, Claire Denis compiles a series of striking and vaguely iconic images: the sexy brunette, the doomed road-side hookup, the gruesome aftermath. These images feel at home in the horror genre but the way in which they’re handled feel far from it. Denis’ trademark  fragmentation refuses to make it easy on us – every close-up and every cut sidesteps exposition while seducing us with its hypnotic rhythm. From our inherent associations with these archetypes, we know nothing good will come from this truck driver’s blind lust for the sexy brunette but Denis only shows us glimpses – specifically the before and after. But of course we want to see the act itself and this carnal desire is at the center of Trouble Every Day. Our “payoff” comes in the form of two scenes that I count collectively as one of two instances (Antichrist was the other one) where a film forced me to look away. 

The femme fatale is Coré, she prowls the earth in search of her next victim like a monster. Before the film tells us exactly how, we abstractly understand that Core and Vincent Gallo’s Shane – an American scientist on his honeymoon in Paris – are connected. On Shane’s flight to France, he retreats to the bathroom in a panic; There, he dreams of blood-soaked flesh suggesting without defining his connection to Coré. Whether this is meant to represent a memory or a fantasy is unclear but, like Coré, he has blood on the brain. Shane spends his days secretly trying to track down a scientist he used to work with, revealing an ulterior motive for the Parisian locale. Because Denis is dead-set on narrative sparseness, we have little idea of Shane’s history or motivations, which makes this section feel cold and stiff. Here, again, Denis is outlining a vaguely familiar trope – the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde science-experiment-gone-wrong story – but not indulging in it. It’s almost as if this section – the first hour or so of the film – is intentionally sluggish. Denis knows that we can’t help but be intrigued by the promise of sex and violence that the film’s opening suggests. She knows that we are familiar enough with this kind of story to fill in the blanks. 

We soon discover that the scientist Shane is searching for, Léo (Alex Descas), is Coré’s lover. Léo has left behind the scientific community for a life dutifully cleaning up after his wife’s gruesome murders. Coré is presented as a victim of her own id – after each encounter she is left helpless and shaking until Léo comes to her aid. This marriage serves as a bleak look into the future for the hopeful young honeymooning couple. You see, Coré and Shane suffer from the same affliction, which has something to do with a failed experiment performed by Léo. The procedure resulted in a brain defect that has left them with an insatiable appetite for human flesh. The difference between them is Shane seems to be in more control of it, at least for now. Whereas Shane knows enough to lock himself in the bathroom when he feels out of control, Coré needs to be constantly confined in the attic with Léo on close watch. 

Neither of the film’s two couples are sleeping together. In the case of Shane and June – even though they both desperately long to consummate their marriage, Shane knows that it would end badly. The offscreen struggle to prevent this is cleverly hinted at with light marks on June’s face and shoulder – apparently they’ve come dangerously close. What Denis is fearlessly exploring with Trouble Every Day is the idea at the core of all vampire fiction – love and lust are two overwhelming forces that are often at odds with each other. For Shane and Coré – lust is an addiction for which they are in constant need of a fix, an addiction that is constantly threatening to sabotage their efforts to love their partners.

Trouble Every Day, like most of Claire Denis’ work, is fiercely provocative and defiantly ambiguous. Aside from what the film says about love and lust, it also tells a larger story about our carnal desire to watch. Similar to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, Trouble is designed to confront this desire. We, like the young boy who falls victim to Coré’s hunger, can’t help but wonder what would happen if he broke through the boarded up doorway and satisfied his lust. In this scene and the gruesome penultimate scene, disorienting close-ups of the victim’s skin implicate us into the dizzyingly seduction that the monsters experience. Importantly, though, the perspective of these scenes shifts once the encounter turns horrific. In Shane’s locker room scene, for instance, our eyes are locked on the housekeeper’s screaming face as she is punished for the control she has foolishly offered to Shane. We feel her pain – we too are being punished.

This is a deeply unsettling and unpleasant film. This effect, of course, is the intention and therefore it is successful. As a provocation, Trouble Every Day is brilliantly multi-layered and boldly confident. As a movie, it’s pretty hard to watch. 

7 out of 10 

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51st New York Film Festival

Some highlights from this years New York Film Festival:

Bastards (Claire Denis) 

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Claire Denis trades the fable-like grandeur of White Material for the intimacy and darkness of a modern noir. Bastards is a film that, as stylish and fragmented as it seems, never puts style before contentDenis continues to demonstrate her profound sense of rhythm and economy – every cut is dead-on and exposition is non-existant. The subject matter of Bastards is deeply disturbing and, through the repetition of jarring imagery (a blank-faced girl walking down a dark street wearing nothing but heels), and the haunting music of frequent collaborators, Tindersticks, Denis creates a deeply unsettling and unforgettable film.

Jealousy (Phillipe Garrel)

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A meandering and spare portrait of love, responsibility, and adulthood. The gorgeously grainy black-and-white (by Masculin Féminin DP Willy Kurant) is a breath of fresh air. Louis Garrel (the director’s son) recalls the Antoine Doinel of Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses or Bed and Board. Anna Mouglali, with her smokey voice and expressive face, gives the film its most intimate and vulnerable moments.

Philipe Garrel’s dopey-eyed Louis acts as a surrogate for the director himself. The film is clearly autobiographical and, as a result, borders on navel gazing. Feeling more like a collection of moments than a story, Jealousy wouldn’t be much without the beauty of its photography, setting and actors. At 77 minutes, it doesn’t feel a minute too long and, although there’s not much to it, it’s an altogether warm and enjoyable film.

Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiradie)

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This film is gorgeously atmospheric and dreamlike. Guiradie uses repeated shots and erratic sound design to undercut the idyllic locale with a growing sense of dread. The film takes Hitchcock’s fascination with the connection between sex and violence to the next level. Brilliant.

Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-Liang)

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This was my first experience with director Tsai Ming-Liang and it’s one I won’t soon forget. The film’s tremendously long takes call to mind other masters of slow cinema like Tarkovsky and Tarr but where those directors present a cinema of movement, Ming-Liang’s film often emphasizes the lack thereof. Perhaps a more apt comparison would be Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman – both films depict characters who are stuck in space.

In spite of its impenetrable narrative (or lack thereof) and defiantly glacial pace, Stray Dogs is remarkably cinematic. Raw emotion – specifically anger and sadness – are front and center.

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The Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2013)

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The brilliance of Sarah Polley’s hyper-personal documentary, The Stories We Tell, is evident within the first 5 minutes. We are introduced to the cast of characters, Polley’s own family, as they awkwardly prepare for their interviews. With this simple sequence, Polley uses her family’s pre-roll banter to establish a level of intimacy that the following film could not function without – from this point on we are no longer objective observers, we are family. This prelude also firmly establishes a major question in The Stories We Tell: How does our own perspective – with all of its self-consciousness, insecurity, disappointment wrapped up in it – affect how we view the world? Sarah Polley generously uses her own family’s history to explore larger questions about memory, perspective, and the way we construct the stories of our lives.

It quickly becomes clear in The Stories We Tell that this is not a family that’s afraid to talk about things – her brother, for example, recounts a time in which he casually asked their father about oral sex. It doesn’t hurt that they are also very good at talking about things. The aforementioned brother speaks with a candor and vulnerability that gives the film its most memorable moments. Polley’s father, who reads the only pre-written narration throughout, speaks with the gravitas and authority of a seasoned thespian. These people are a joy to watch and their immediate charm convinces us to go along as they venture into potentially self-indulgent territory.

Sarah Polley structures her film by having everyone in her family sit in front of the camera and tell “the story” as they remember it from start to finish. The story in question begins as a tribute to her late mother, whose charismatic charm is lovingly remembered. The family’s recollections are further revealed through a surprisingly plentiful amount of super-8 home movies. Polley is a acutely aware of the emotional and intellectual effect this footage has on us. Not only is this footage nostalgic, it’s also corroborative  - we perceive this footage to be the truth, we believe it to represent what her mother actually looked like, the way she dressed, the way she danced and, as a result, we feel like we know her. As her “storytellers” (as they are titled in the credits) share their own personal perspectives on the woman and her story, we are given the materials to structure our own.

It is revealed that Polley’s mother had become bored with her marriage and that an affair may have taken place. Family lore holds that Sarah, who was conceived during this period, could possibly have been the result of the alleged affair. Sarah’s effort to clear up this long-held family secret is the main narrative thrust of Stories but it is far from the point. Polley is more interested in how the story is told rather than the story itself. To this effect, she gives equal weight to all perspectives because everyone seems to remember the events differently. One of the principle players in the film, a close friend of her late mother’s, strongly disapproves of this approach. His argument is that this jumbling of opinions results in a retelling that is far from the “truth.” But the relativity of truth is precisely where Sarah Polley’s interest lies and, throughout The Stories We Tell, she goes to great lengths to highlight its slipperiness.

As I describe this remarkable film, I am paying close attention to what aspects of the plot should be revealed. Whereas the phrase “spoiler alert” doesn’t often enter into conversations regarding documentaries, this is a film that is best experienced with little knowledge of its surprises. The Stories We Tell is conceptually bold and emotionally rich. With her previous film, Take this Waltz, Sarah Polley demonstrated her ability to portray loneliness and longing with overwhelming precision. With The Stories We Tell, she explores our fundamental need to tell stories, to make sense of our collective longing, and the ways in which we inevitably come up short. Her ability to explore these questions with great humor makes the experience entertaining as well as thought-provoking. Simply put, this is essential viewing – a front runner for film of the year.

10 out of 10 

 

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