Welcome to the Summer of Sarah Polley

I recently opined that David Cronenberg is the greatest filmmaker this country has ever produced.

I’d suggest a corollary to that: Sarah Polley has got to be in the top five.

To date she’s only directed three feature films — a fourth is due soon, more on that below — but they’re astonishingly good.

Her first, from 2006, is the heartbreaking Away From Her. It’s about an older couple where the woman is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and has to go into a care home, and the distance between her and her husband — who may not have always been the most faithful partner — grows. It features a never better Julie Christie — who Polley had to campaign for her to take the part — and Gordon Pinsent in the leads, with Polley also adapting the Alice Munro short story for the screen.  She did all that at 27.

Before that stellar debut, Polley was a well-respected actor who moved from Canadian child stardom — in films like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Exotica, and The Sweet Hereafter — to more adult fare in Go, Guinevere, and Dawn Of The Dead. Almost famously she was cast as Penny Lane in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, but backed out late in preproduction because she didn’t like the idea of playing a character who was a muse, nor the prospect of the kind of superstardom the role would lead to.

I interviewed Polley when she came to Halifax with Away From Her at the Atlantic Film Festival, and she said when she bailed from Almost Famous she was a much more politically minded person. She was 20.

Her second feature as writer-director was 2011’s moving Take This Waltz, another story about a married couple (Michelle Williams and Seth Rogan) where the woman starts an affair with a neighbour, played by Luke Kirby. It’s a story about commitment, about the decisions we make as adults in relationships, for better or worse, and the appeal of the new versus the security of the familiar. It also features a terrific role for Sarah Silverman, an amazing cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Closing Time” by Feist, and is a love letter to Toronto’s Little Italy and Little Portugal communities in the summer.

Her third film is a documentary, Stories We Tell, which includes a lot of dramatic reenactments to the point where the film blurs the line between doc and feature. Polley explores her own origins in the film, the possibility the man who she was raised by might not be her biological father,  with a mix of home movie footage and creative fiction. I chose it as the best film of 2012.

Why am I mentioning all this? Because the FIN Outdoor summer film festival, Summer of Sarah Polley, kicks off tonight in the Public Gardens and continues every Friday evening until August. The three films Polley directed will be screened.

This marks the arrival of a new Executive Director at the FIN Atlantic International Film Festival, Martha Cooley. Cooley told CBC Information Morning that by choosing to show films by Polley — whose work is more mature and more dramatic than the family-friendly fare usually chosen for this program — she’s connecting it more directly with the festival in September. (Take This Waltz includes actual sex scenes to potentially scandalize the Public Gardens audience!)

Cooley also couldn’t confirm these screenings would lead to the festival showing Polley’s brand-new feature, Women Talking, an adaptation of the Miriam Toews novel, but Cooley clearly has her fingers crossed.

To start the Summer of Sarah Polley, this evening they’re screening a 2003 film Polley acts in, My Life Without Me, from Spanish director Isabel Coixet. Polley plays a married woman with two young kids who is diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and the film is about what she choses to do with that information. Starring alongside her is Mark Ruffalo, Debbie Harry, and Scott Speedman.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.