Sarah Polley eyes next year's doc Oscar with 'Stories We Tell'
I'm a bit behind the curve on this news, but since it was rather buried beneath the surge of autumn Oscar-contender updates, I thought it worth flagging up anyway. I've recently been combing the US release calendar for possibilities in the Best Documentary Feature race, looking in particular for the slightly left-of-center contenders that routinely pop up in the branch's shortlist -- the eligibility rules may have changed this year, but we have no reason to think voters will suddenly start focusing more intently on much-hyped frontrunners.
In doing so, I found myself wondering what became of "Stories We Tell," Sarah Polley's lovely non-fiction debut -- a critical hit at the Venice and Toronto festivals that did rather well for itself by scoring a US distribution deal with a relatively high-profile indie outfit, Roadside Attractions. In recent years, Roadside has been a tidy little player in the Oscar race, scoring major nominations for "Winter's Bone," "Biutiful," "Albert Nobbs" and "Margin Call," in all cases against significant odds. However, they made their name with the Academy in the documentary race: founded in 2003, they landed their first nod less than two years later with "Super Size Me," and took the win five years later with "The Cove."
Between Roadside's skills and the considerable merits of Polley's film, I thought we had the makings of a possible nominee. Turns out the distributor thinks likewise -- just not this year. Late last month, the Toronto Star's Pete Howell reported that while release date for "Stories We Tell" in its Canadian homeland remains imminent -- it opens there this Friday, in fact -- Roadside has delayed the US release until mid-2013.
Company spokesman David Pollick told Howell that they were "excited" about the new release, and spoke of their "plan to focus on awards after the film has been established in the US theatrical market." Polley herself concurred that it was "the best possible strategy" for her film.
A malleable study of Polley's own complicated family history, "Stories We Tell" was, for me, one of the highlights of last month's Venice Film Festival. I didn't get to write about it much on these pages, but I did have the pleasure of reviewing it for Variety, and my enthusiasm was matched by the critical majority. As much as I agree with their sentiments, however, I'd warn you off reading most reviews, since it's very much a film that's best served cold, its staggered revelations turning it into something far more profound and surprising than the gentle maternal tribute it initially appears to be. I can, however, safely relay the first paragraph of my review (if you'll forgive the self-quotation):
After two exceptional dramatic features, "Away From Her" and "Take This Waltz," Sarah Polley appeared to be taking a discursive left turn with a documentary on her own family. As it turns out, the alternately playful and elegiac "Stories We Tell" is wholly of a piece with her fiction work, and just as rewarding... sewn from the occasionally sparring firsthand accounts of loved ones, it's another delicate, surprising reflection on intimate relationship politics from the young Canadian.
I'm interested to see how Roadside handle the film, given that, critical laurels notwithstanding, it's not an easy sell, either to audiences or the Academy. The personal history of a gifted, well-regarded but not super-famous actress-turned-filmmaker sounds like more of a niche topic than it is in the film, and it's hard to illustrate what's so compelling and universal about it without stepping on the film's own story-weaving. The Academy's documentary branch, for their part, tends to favor less watercolor-delicate work, on more capital-I Important subjects -- one could perhaps liken "Stories We Tell" to the more personal work of Agnes Varda, who has never scored with the branch. Something tells me, however, that it could find a way through, particularly if reviews next summer echo the intensity of praise in festival notices. Either way, it's one to look forward to in 2013.
Meanwhile, Polley's 2012 Oscar hopes rest with the fiction film to which "Stories We Tell" forms an unlikely lateral companion piece: "Take This Waltz." And yes, those hopes are slim: also granted a summer release by its indie handlers (Magnolia, in this case), her ripely sensual marital drama deserves serious consideration at least for Polley's original screenplay and Michelle Williams' marvelous lead turn, but it'll struggle to overcome the twin obstacles of polarised reviews and minimal campaign resources. Still, if it's any comfort, Polley has a serious shot at holding down two spots on my own end-of-year list.