All My Puny Sorrows, 2021.
Written and directed by Michael McGowan.
Starring Alison Pill, Sarah Gadon, Mare Winningham, Amybeth McNulty, and Donal Logue.
The story of two Mennonite sisters who have left their strict religious upbringing behind. While one sibling struggles in love and life, the other is a world-famous concert pianist.
Michael McGowan’s (Still Mine) adaptation of Miriam Toews’ 2014 novel of the same name boldly examines the difficult realities of guiding a loved one through a battle against suicidal ideations, and does so impactfully enough to offset its more flowery adornments.
Writer Yoli (Alison Pill) is the mother of a deeply sarcastic teenager and, in the midst of a rough divorce, is struggling to find a romantic connection. Her sister Elf (Sarah Gadon) is meanwhile a famous, much-respected concert pianist who nevertheless contends with a crippling wave of depression, while their mother Lottie (Mare Winningham) is forever concerned that the mental health woes which claimed their father’s (Donal Logue) life may endanger theirs. This comes to bear when Elf calmly insists to Yoli that she wishes to commit suicide.
In the first few minutes of McGowan’s film, you’d be forgiven for assuming All My Puny Sorrows was a typical Quirky Indie Comedy; between the protagonist’s unusual names and the too-cool-for-school, “nobody talks like this” nature of the dialogue, that heightened approach could threaten to diminish the pic’s true-to-life resonance.
And while the extremely pithy nature of the clapbacks between characters won’t ring true for everyone, McGowan smartly centers his film less around witticisms than opening an honest dialogue about a subject still mostly cloistered away by society – mental health, depression, and especially suicide.
A thread of generational trauma is pronounced throughout, from Yoli and Elf’s Mennonite immigrant grandfather having been persecuted by the Bolsheviks, to the ambiguous nature of their father’s suicide – implied to be related to the Mennonite community’s strict control over their lives – and now Elf’s full-hearted desire to visit Switzerland in order to be euthanised.
As much as audiences will be left in anxious tension waiting to see whether or not Elf carries out her act, this drama is far less concerned with melodramatic turns of plot than it is rewiring society’s conception of suicidal thoughts. “There’s nothing to forgive,” Lottie says of Elf’s mindset, while Elf considers suicide as much a terminal illness as cancer.
McGowan and his cast do a stellar job of exploring the immense difficulties a person faces in trying to help a suicidal person – be they friend, lover, or sibling – and how challenging it can be for those outside of the depressive bubble, even medical professionals, to fully understand it. In one telling moment, Elf tells her sister, “You have a low-grade understanding of despair,” something few audience members will likely agree with by film’s end.
Though the stylised, heightened quality of the dialogue often flirts with putting viewers at a distance, there is a wealth of humanity beneath that superficial veneer of sentimental quirk – namely wryly funny insights into trauma that ensure the narrative’s darker aspects are buffeted by just enough lightness.
It’s the triumvirate of actresses, however, who really do this material justice. The back-and-forth between Pill and Gadon’s siblings, whether in euphoric joy or volcanic frustration, is absolutely electric, with Pill’s depiction of a woman desperately trying to pull her sister back from the cliff’s edge proving especially affecting.
Pill’s serio-comic verbal explosion in a parking garage at a man over-protective of his own vehicle is particularly excellent. It’s also always great to see Mare Winningham gracing the screen, and she bring her typical grace and resolve to the role of a mother committed to seeing her daughters safely through this thing called life.
A film with such emotional import really didn’t need anything beyond functional technicals, but DP Daniel Grant does a fantastic job boosting the film’s character intimacy through his sustained use of close-ups and shallow focus, giving the three actresses the floor to command the screen at every which moment.
This closeness between player and audience bolsters the film’s confronting approach to its central themes, eschewing feel-good truisms in favour of something tougher but richer. Even at its most inauthentically verbose, the emotional plausibility of the characters and their connections to both each other and the world never feels in doubt.
An overabundance of self-consciously affected dialogue belies the crushing emotional honesty of Michael McGowan’s All My Puny Sorrows, which provides a sturdy platform for its three terrific leads – especially a never-better Alison Pill.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.