All My Puny Sorrows. 2022
Written and Directed by Michael McGowan.
Starring Alison Pill, Sarah Gadon, Amybeth McNulty, Mare Winningham, Donal Logue, Mimi Kuzyk, Michael Musi, and Aly Mawji.
The poignant story of two sisters-one a concert pianist obsessed with ending her life, the other, a writer, who in wrestling with this decision, makes profound discoveries about her herself.
There are several moments in All My Puny Sorrows where its literary origins feel like a detrimental crutch rather than a script organically transferred across entertainment mediums. One of the protagonists is an unsuccessful writer that happens to be obsessed with poetry to a point where it feels like writer and director Michael McGowan (adapting the celebrated book from Miriam Toews) either doesn’t know how to pen some of these dialogue exchanges naturalistically or can’t help over-relying on passages from famous poets (which I’m sure are also in the novel) and excessive narration. Even the title of the film comes from poetry.
However, the story, dealing with the sensitive subjects of suicide and depression, is routinely thoughtfully handled and grounded by a pair of emotionally riveting performances from tight-knit Mennonite siblings Yoli and Elf (with Alison Pill and Sarah Gadon inhabiting those bizarre character names and compellingly broken characters). Elf happens to be the sister with a noteworthy career, loving husband, and generally easy-going adult life but is the one checked into a psych ward following a suicide attempt before an international pianist tour. This elicits a wide range of emotions from Yoli, ranging from empathy to bitterness, jealousy, and sometimes outright anger. It’s reasonable considering that despite going through a divorce, shaming herself over embracing sexuality, becoming estranged from her teenage daughter (Amybeth McNulty from Stranger Things), who is quick to throw every one of her mom’s mistakes and failures right back into her face as an impulsive reaction to criticism, and struggling to finish the next novel for an unremarkable career is, while still depressed, holding it together mentally.
When the script is simply allowing the sisters to interact with one another, whether it be discussing their tragic generational family history with suicide (the film opens showing their father stepping foot onto some train tracks), growing up as Mennonites, and simply lifting one another while simultaneously being at each other’s throats, it’s a raw depiction of what feels like authentic conversations regarding mental health. The situation takes its toll on Yoli, notably during an intense verbal blowup on a deserving asshole stranger after incorrectly parking her car in the hospital garage. The segment is even joked about because sometimes when life is that miserable (there are also other subplots with her mom and aunt stressing her out), what can you do but laugh at your mounting frustrations hoping for some cathartic release?
All My Puny Sorrows also introduces some potential character choices that could have disastrously ruined any goodwill so far, coming across as blatantly offensive. It thankfully avoids these trappings while also examining the role of therapists and doctors in some infuriating ways that also feel true to life. Admittedly, there is sometimes too much going on, and the third act takes some unnecessary detours away from the story’s strengths. It’s also flat-out grating how often narration and poetry are ham-fistedly delivered, especially when substituting for dialogue in an otherwise piercing and raw script.
In terms of emotional power, All My Puny Sorrows is a stinger anchored by a pair of outstanding performances. Dealing with touchy subjects such as suicide, it also could have gone south at any moment but largely remains absorbing and earnest.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com