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Pretty quickly into All My Puny Sorrows, two things become apparent. One is that the film is rooted in firsthand experience — the emotions on display seem too jagged not to be. The other is that it’s based on a book; even those who’ve never heard of it would glean as much from the sporadic voiceovers and literary-sounding dialogue. And then, not long after, a third realization follows: In the case of this particular film, those two tendencies work directly at odds with each other.
Written and directed by Michael McGowan, the drama centers on two sisters in crisis. Protagonist Yoli (Alison Pill) is a frustrated mother and struggling novelist who’s grown up in the shadow of her big sister, Elf (Sarah Gadon), a brilliant concert pianist. After Elf attempts suicide, Yoli returns to their hometown near Winnipeg to help her recover, though Elf insists she is absolutely determined to die.
Author Miriam Toews has readily acknowledged that her 2014 novel was based on similar events in her own life, and her intimate understanding of the situation shows in the film’s refusal to smooth over the thorny situation it presents. Pill imbues her every line reading as Yoli with a mélange of restless emotions — her affectionate teasing carries undercurrents of desperation and anger, her furious rants a note of pleading. Gadon tempers Elf’s fragility with surprising resolve, and she regards Yoli’s mood swings with the bittersweet remove of someone who doesn’t plan to stick around for many more of them.
As Yoli puts it, Elf has “enemies that love [her]” — people working their hardest to keep Elf from what she wants most in the world, because what she wants most in the world is not to be in it anymore. It’s an irreconcilable position for both sisters, and All My Puny Sorrows has no interest in pretending otherwise. Whatever one’s stances on assisted suicide or mental illness or the Canadian health care system (and the movie is bound to provoke conversations about all of the above), there’s no denying that the film’s attempts to grapple with them feel honest and earned. It’s willing to hear out Elf’s darkest thoughts and Yoli’s ugliest ones, and to present both of them as human beings in pain rather than as talking points in some larger cultural discussion.
But at nearly every turn, the film’s urgent emotions are undermined by the way the characters choose to express them. Yoli and Elf — really the whole Von Riesen family, which also includes mom Lottie (Mare Winningham) and, in flashbacks, dad Jake (Donal Logue) — are unapologetically bookish sorts, given to name-dropping Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Thomas Aquinas in casual conversation or reciting Philip Larkin poems from memory. (The film’s title itself is drawn from a Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem.) But that goes only so far in explaining why their conversations sound not like people speaking spontaneously from the heart, but like authors savoring their own words at a book reading.
Even as Yoli is breaking down in near hysterics, the words tumbling out of her mouth sound overworked and affected, and McGowan’s unadorned direction — he favors clean lines in gray winter light, and close-ups so sharp you could count every hair on a character’s head — does little to bridge the gap between the film’s messy truths and its polished prose. Meanwhile, Jonathan Goldstein’s maudlin piano-heavy score only pushes the whole endeavor toward the sentimental. All My Puny Sorrows‘ artificiality works best in its faint flights of fancy, as when a character imagines addressing a dead loved one as if they were in a room together. For most of its running time, however, it seems to be aiming for a grim realism.
At the same time, the film elides too many details that would help deepen the Von Riesens’ story. Scattered flashbacks and conversations sketch out a vague picture of the sisters’ strict Mennonite upbringing and their father’s death by suicide some years prior, but the film leaves it to the viewer to shade in the spaces between their past and Elf’s present state. Such restraint might read as admirable in a movie more committed to showing and not telling, but it feels too coy for one that otherwise stumbles over itself to spell out its characters’ every cleverly worded insight.
Indeed, All My Puny Sorrows makes such an overwhelming case for the preciousness of its language that after a while, it becomes a case against itself: Why sit there sighing as the actors strain to make Toews’ prose sound like naturalistic dialogue when you could go straight to the source and read them on the page? That McGowan admires the source material and wants to do it justice is clear, and that he’s resisted the temptation to sand down its sharpest edges speaks to a desire to meet his troubled characters where they are. But his movie ends up just another reminder that paying tribute to a novel isn’t the same as breathing it into life.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Production companies: Mulmur Feed Col, Sugar Shack Productions, Carousel Pictures
Cast: Alison Pill, Sarah Gadon, Mare Winningham, Donal Logue, Amybeth McNulty
Director-screenwriter: Michael McGowan
Based on the novel by Miriam Toews
Producers: Michael McGowan, Patrice Theroux, Tyler Levine
Executive producers: Hussain Amarshi, Peter Gibson, Naveen Prasad
Director of photography: Daniel Grant
Production designer: Danny Haeberlin
Costume designer: Renée Fontana
Editors: Michelle Szemberg, Orlee Buium
Music: Jonathan Goldsmith
Casting director: Heidi Levitt
Sales: Voltage Pictures
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