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In Defense of Sarah Polley Being One of the Best Directors in Modern Cinema

Director Sarah Polley (Press photo / photographer unknown)

The child actress-turned-director is a mastermind at both presenting and analyzing the fine details of a life.

Note: The following text reveals spoilers about movies that in all honesty should never be spoiled for those who may already be interested in discovering any of the films at hand. The best advice, of course, would be to click away now if you are currently unfamiliar with Sarah Polley's work, though you plan to someday change that. But then again, why would we ever want you to click away?! In any case, you have now officially been warned.

All right. Forget the prose: Sarah Polley, for my money, is the greatest living director/writer of movies under the age of 35 to have no more or no less than three feature-length films to her credit. Got all that? Good. 

It began with 2006's Away From Her, an adaptation of Alice Munro's short story The Bear Came Over the Mountain, that to this day is still the single saddest premise for a movie I've ever come across. Critically acclaimed, it didn't do much for business at the box office, but it did earn both Polley and Julie Christie (the film's female lead) Oscar nominations. Twenty bucks says you can't make it through the end of that thing without -- at the very least -- feeling your eyes begin to well up. 

She then followed that with 2011's Take This Waltz, the Michelle Williams-starring drama that examined the conflict between modern day romance and time-tested morals, a subject far too honest for many other scribes to successfully confront, let alone do it with as much introspection and ambiguity as Polley did. One could make a strong argument that the whole exercise was an indictment on how devolved the institution of marriage has become, while others could use it as Exhibit A when making the case that we should all live our lives beyond the parameters of mere tradition. It's a hard topic to confront with any amount of weight, but Take This Waltz paints the picture beautifully, and void of any wrong colors.

And now most recently, she has capped the golden trifecta with Stories We Tell, a movie I was lucky enough to see for the first time in an actual theater a couple weeks ago that turns the camera onto herself without her ever really having to stand in front of a lens. On the surface, it's a pseudo documentary that chronicles the mystery surrounding how she was born, what kind of person her mother was, who her biological father actually is and, of course, the ripples it can cause within the DNA of a family. Beneath the surface however, the story is one of the most brilliant comments contemporary film has made on the art of storytelling, an unwitting investigation into perception, presentation and prose. It's bottom-of-the-sea deep, an acute observation of how heartbreaking and cruel a life can be even after heartbreak and cruelty is established and accepted.  

Stories We Tell is a single notation that needs volumes of footnotes to fully understand. 

"Without explaining the film's various surprises, it's still possible to express admiration for the way Polley structures the film, the way she doles out the various things she wants to explore, the careful presentation of information throughout the film," Hit Fix's Drew McWeeny wrote about Stories We Tell, "This is nothing less than the single most important story about who she is and how she relates to her entire family, and she wants to present it to you as a viewer in much the same way that it was presented to her. She wants you to feel blindsided the same ways that she did. She wants you to feel the same paradigm shifts with the same intensity, and I think she does an extraordinary job of making that work. This is a quietly brilliant movie, the sort of thing that kept me thinking about it for days afterwards, admiring some new part of what she'd done and how she'd done it. From Away From Her to Waltz to this film, she has demonstrated such finely detailed, intuitive skill as a storyteller. She communicates the subtle things that make a moment or a story matter, and in this particular story, those fine details are things she's chewed on for her whole life." ("Review: Sarah Polley's 'Stories We Tell' emerges as an early favorite for 2013 ", 19 February 2013)

Ahhh, subtlety -- it's hard enough to successfully use within the art of the written word, yet it's infinitely more difficult to try and figure out how the same can be accomplished visually. With her first three films, Polley has exhibited an unparalleled mastery in meticulousness by paying maximum attention to each moment within a moment. She captures humanity so well, be it from an elderly couple falling apart through no true fault of their own, or a young marriage that simply just slips away for reasons impossible to comprehend or identify. 

But that's where her genius lies: at the core of life's most misunderstood moments, the instances that spark as many unanswered questions as they do consequences. Part of what made Away From Her so startling was that it came from someone who hadn't even been on this Earth for longer than three decades. Rarely can any director articulate the many intangible difficulties of loss and sadness with gravity, yet here was a 20-something former child actress at the head of a film chronicling a resilient, troubled love without ever really missing any steps. The end production reached many years beyond the young mind behind it. 

Then again, one's own space between its mind and soul can be much further apart than we oftentimes believe. 

Actually, it's that precise distance that Polley has made her playground, a world she explores with more curiosity than an infant scaling a slide for the first time. Sure, at first glance, it appears that her forte as a writer/director would be sorrow, but upon further examination, it's clear that her abilities extend much further than a mere complex emotion. Rather, it's the brevity with which she confronts obscurity that becomes her most prevalent trait. Not once within Away from Her, Take This Waltz or Stories We Tell does she talk down to her audience. Nor does she suggest that the underlying principles within her narratives are either uncommon or separated by such identifiers as race, class or sex. She's best at capturing the rose of life in all its uneasy glory, yet it's the thorns that make her work so fascinating.

Oh, and the gender game? Playing it when it comes to Polley's work is moronic. She's not one of the best up-and-coming women directors around; she's one of the best up-and-coming directors, period. There is an enormous sense of grace that falls from her work that simultaneously contradicts her vivid disinterest in sentimentality -- so much so that trying to pigeonhole her into a singular subset would be both shortsighted and just plain unfair. Besides: This is 2013, for God's sake. Celebrating an artist within the context of only femininity or masculinity is a terrible disservice to the mind in question if only for how transcendent the great ones usually are. And the one sitting behind Polley's eyes, of course, is great.

Yet the gender issue is also fresh. Stories We Tell works as well as it does because of how unorthodox it's presented. Not until the credits role does it all begin to come together in one's mind. For such an odd, life-defining tale, Polley approaches somewhat of a taboo subject and completely makes it her own. There's no sugar-coating. There's no romance. There's no easy ending. Both within the movie and in subsequent interviews after it was released, she has questioned the resonance her story might have with audiences. It's a fair reservation -- in a lesser director's hands, this is the exact kind of thing that could come across as too self-indulgent to establish poignance where it's needed or incite genuine interest within those watching (and for that matter, it's also the kind of thing that has roughly 5,000 reasons to fail for every one that suggests it might succeed). 

Polley overcomes that, though, by allowing each angle of the story tell itself. She's not looking for sympathy; nor is she looking for support. As the details play out and the film's exposure widens, it becomes more and more evident that there are no untoward intentions lying somewhere beneath the surface. She merely thought this was an incredible tale to tell. So, she told it. Yet because she told it in such an imaginative, revelatory manner, any possible misgivings would have to almost instantly be negated if only for how raw and pragmatic the discoveries are analyzed. In the end, it's just a classic example of playing the long game to perfection.

"Once in a while," Alice Shindelar wrote about Polley for the website, Movies I Didn't Get, "an artist comes along who gives voice to your world, to your experience of life, better than you can imagine ever being capable of, and you’re left exposed." ("Six Months on a Regimen of Woman Filmmakers – Sarah Polley", 21 July 2012)

If there's one current young writer/director who has been able to examine the many virtues of modernistic vulnerability, that young writer/director is Sarah Polley. To think she's not even 35 years old yet is an unnerving yet exhilarating reality -- exhilarating because the possibilities for what she can discover appear to be endless; unnerving because conventional wisdom suggests that it would be nearly impossible to keep up this level of work on a consistent basis. 

But then again -- and judging by the amount of life's intricacies that she has discovered, dissected, doubted and developed within only the parameters of her first three movies -- impossible seems to be a word Ms. Polley knows nothing about. 

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