From the age of 12, Sarah Polley has been concerned with shedding her "nice girl" image. Since then, she's done more than that-she's turned this stereotype on its head. Inarguably angelic in appearance, the slight and golden Polley radiates, more importantly than beauty, no-nonsense intelligence.
In her earlier years in Canada, the actress received national fame in the Road to Avonlea TV series, and was glimpsed by American audiences in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen as Sally Salt. But it wasn't until her appearances in the films of Atom Egoyan, first Exotica and later The Sweet Hereafter, that audiences worldwide got a taste of Polley's true talent.
Exotica focuses on the late-night fantasy world of a strip club and the real-life needs of its denizens. And while Polley's plotline never actually leads her into the club, the milieu is certainly a long road from Avonlea. As a babysitter paid to sit the house of her uncle where the child has died years ago, Polley appears much younger than her age, then 15, yet conveys a wisdom and self-knowledge beyond that of the majority of the film's adults.
Egoyan fills Exotica with needy individuals who fear the expression of their desires and jealously hide dark secrets-yet the young Polley, with her clear-eyed gaze, is the only one to cut through the murk. With all the strange and creepy goings-on, she is able to confront her uncle with the fact that what's she's doing is weird and that she's not going to do it anymore. More than the character's lines, however, Polley's delivery-slightly annoyed, but nevertheless concerned-reveals the intelligence of the actress, playing against the obvious choices of an innocent in a corrupt world.
Polley expanded this wise innocent persona with her much larger role in Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter. As one of the few survivors of a school-bus crash, her wheelchair-bound character is the only one who grasps the true significance the event has played in her town beyond the individual tragedies. And in an ironic twist, by lying about the events of that fateful day when it comes time for her deposition, it is Polley's character who cuts through the more damaging lies in which the others have wrapped themselves, from her lawyer's misguided diligence to her father's failure to acknowledge his sexual abuse.
In a role which could have come off as self-pitying or, worse, as hard-nosed or vindictive, Polley radiates empathy and affection. She is at once above it all and yet more truly connected with the tragedy of the event than anyone else. As a teenager, she is nevertheless the adult voice in a film filled with the emotionally stunted and damaged.
Stretching further in the recent plot-driven Go, Polley's more active role gave her the opportunity to explore humor and desperation, as a young woman who-despite the actress's patented wisdom and calm-finds herself in deep trouble of her own doing. A down-on-her-luck supermarket clerk, Polley's character tries to make some desperately needed cash by double-crossing a local pusher and gets in way over her head. As she deals with her often weak-willed and reckless friends, Polley again comes off as the smartest card in the pack. Yet there is a new vulnerability in the situation to which the actress commits fully, revealing glimpses of true fear and panic behind the cool faÁade.
The role is strangely reminiscent of Jodie Foster's work in films from Accused to Silence of the Lambs-straight-shooting, smart, and still brittlely human. One hopes that, like Foster, Polley will continue to seek out roles which allow her to be as young, wise, and human as she's shown she can be.