Sarah Polley's Stunning Directorial Debut

Sarah POLLEY is ordering a drink at Starbucks when she notices a 10th anniversary edition of Alanis MORISSETTE's Jagged Little Pill CD for sale on the counter. She howls with laughter.

Sarah Polley's Stunning Directorial Debut

Sarah POLLEY is ordering a drink at Starbucks when she notices a 10th anniversary edition of Alanis MORISSETTE's Jagged Little Pill CD for sale on the counter. She howls with laughter. "Can you believe that? A commemorative edition?" When that Alanis album first came out, Polley was 18, and undergoing her own rite of passage - that year she shed her child-star chrysalis by playing an incest victim in Atom EGOYAN's THE SWEET HEREAFTER, and as an anti-corporate rebel resisting the role of ingenue, she proved to be quite the jagged little pill for Hollywood to swallow.

Polley has mellowed. Now 28, the actress is a director. And with her first feature, Away From Her, poised for release across North America, she's in a unique position. Female filmmakers are rare enough. But name another young actress anywhere who has reinvented herself as an acclaimed writer-director - never mind one who has cast two Oscar winners (Julie Christie and Olympia Dukakis) in a feature debut that's already attracting some early Oscar buzz of its own.

Six months after Away From Her first wowed audiences and critics at the Toronto International Film Festival, Polley is still trying to explain why someone her age would be drawn to a story of elder romance and adultery. Based on The Bear Came Over the Mountain by Alice MUNRO, Away From Her is the delicate tale of a 50-year marriage that's undone by amnesia - after entering a retirement home, a woman afflicted by Alzheimer's disease (Christie) loses all memory of her husband (Gordon PINSENT), and bonds with a mute resident, to the consternation of his wife (Dukakis). "If I thought about what's best for my image," says Polley, "this is not the story I would have chosen. Any filmmaker under 35 is supposed to use a lot of groundbreaking camera tricks and do something that's supposed to represent her generation."

When asked about her motives last year, Polley told me she'd been drawn to the story because, at the start of her marriage to film editor David Wharnsby, she was wondering just where a lifetime of love might lead. But at a recent screening of her film, she ran into a former co-star from Road to Avonlea. "Both our mums died of cancer fairly close to each other," says Polley, who lost hers at 11. "She came out of the film and said, 'I had such a strong reaction to it because of watching my dad lose my mum, and I figured that's why you made it.' I had no idea. But the most affecting emotional experience of my childhood was watching my dad lose the love of his life, helpless in the face of disease - watching him find out what devotion meant. And what I loved about this story is that it was from an older man's point of view."

Directing is not unlike parenting. And as Polley found herself in charge of veteran actors, she learned to be protective. "If the whole world is crashing down, not everybody needs to know it," she says. "But a week before we started shooting, I had this anxiety attack. I remember walking in the rain to Julie's house and just flipped out. I was like, 'I don't know what I'm going to to do! You're older and smarter than me and you just have to help me!' She's a great listener. The next day we went back to being actor and director. And she never held it against me."

Christie says Polley displayed "an iron determination" on the set. "She's tenacious, like a wolf," she told me. "You think, 'I can talk all day long and she'll listen all day long, but she's going to do what she wants.' "

Although Lionsgate, the U.S. distributor of Away From Her, will focus its Oscar campaign around Christie - a semi-retired legend in a comeback role - it's Pinsent who carries the picture. And his beautifully restrained, heartbreaking performance is a revelation. Pinsent, 76, has been travelling the world to promote the movie. "It's so hilarious," says Polley, "to see Americans thinking they've discovered Gordon Pinsent."

As Polley prepares to do a final blitz of U.S. publicity, followed by a stint on the jury of the Cannes Film Festival, she's turning down Hollywood scripts and writing a new screenplay of her own. ("It's about young people seeking urgency.") And she seems determined to keep a level head. But in an uncharacteristic flash of immodesty, Polley claims her greatest gift remains unrecognized. That night, for a friend's birthday, she will impersonate Alanis Morissette in a karaoke bar. "It's my greatest talent by far," she boasts. "The trick is: think pirate. How would a pirate sing? Alanis is from the Ottawa Valley, and she sings like a pirate."

Maclean's May 7, 2007