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Review: All My Puny Sorrows

April 15, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

At the heart of All My Puny Sorrows, the latest emotional work from Canadian filmmaker Michael McGowan (Saint Ralph, One Week, Still Mine), is the push and pull between one person not wanting to live and another trying to show them that there is a reason to go on.

In adapting the 2014 novel of the same name by Miriam Toews for the screen, writer-director McGowan has crafted a powerful character drama that explores the effects of intergenerational trauma and suicide through the story of the Von Riesen sisters, Yoli (Alison Pill) and Elfrieda (Sarah Gadon).

Yoli is a novelist struggling to finish her latest book, with a teenaged daughter (Amybeth McNulty) at home, and an estranged husband who is after her to finally sign their divorce papers. Elf is a celebrated concert pianist who is about to go on tour. Both were raised in a strict Mennonite community in Manitoba, but managed to get out to pursue their own interests, escaping a family plagued by multiple suicides, including of their own father (Donal Logue), shown in the film’s chilling opening scene.

And, as fate would have it, it’s a suicide attempt that brings the adult siblings back together. The two sisters reunite when Elf ends up in the hospital after slitting her wrists in a botched attempt to end her life, and Yoli reacts with a mix of anger, frustration and sorrow around her sister’s apparent loss of her will to live. Yoli is determined to convince her sister that her life still has meaning. But Elf wants her suffering to end and is determined to die on her own terms, and asks Yoli to take her to Switzerland for assisted suicide, leaving her with a complex moral dilemma.

This provides the dramatic core of McGowan’s film, which is really a story about accepting someone else’s pain, and how far you would go to help ease their suffering. It’s carried by the rich, expressive performances of its two leads. Pill has to show a range of emotions as Yoli struggles with shame around her own life choices and her sister’s apparent choice to just give up on life, and Gadon does moving work portraying the internal pain and suffering of her character. Most of the interactions between them take place in the hospital room, with the centrepiece being a haunting scene where Elf opens up about her daily experiences with depression.

In adapting the novel by Toews (who also wrote the book Women Talking, about a series of sexual assaults within a Mennonite community, which has been made into a film directed by Sarah Polley out later this year), McGowan retains a literary quality in his film. The characters quote poetry, and the work of writers who suffered from depression seeps into the story (including a stack of books seen on the table in one key scene), with some discussion of whether art would even be able to exist if you eliminated all personal suffering.

It’s this push and pull between two people who are both dealing with grief that gives the film its lingering power, with one choosing the path of resiliently going on no matter what, and the other wanting to take agency over their life by choosing when to end it. And instead of using it for cheap melodrama, the film recognizes the complexity of the debate around assisted suicide. It’s a dark story about the inevitability of death and the lingering impact of suicide upon those who are left behind, but McGowan also infuses All My Puny Sorrows with little glimmers of sunlight, crafting a poignant film about the long process of letting go of grief, and finding healing in the midst of tragedy.

All My Puny Sorrows is now playing in limited release in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, and will be opening in Winnipeg on April 22nd. It’s being distributed in Canada by Mongrel Media.

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