TIFF 2021 Review: “All My Puny Sorrows”

Featured image: Sarah Gadon and Alison Pill in All The Puny Sorrows. (Courtesy of TIFF.)

Directed by Michael McGowan. Adapted by Michael McGowan, based on a novel by Miriam Toews. Starring: Alison Pill, Sarah Gadon, Mare Winningham. Runtime 1h 43 min. All My Puny Sorrows premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 10.

In Michael McGowan’s adaptation of Miriam Toews’ novel of the same name, All My Puny Sorrows concerns two sisters: Yoli (Alison Pill), a writer struggling with success, and the other, Elf (Sarah Gadon), a brilliant concert pianist who’s hellbent on ending her own life. The themes in this film are very heavy, as it opens with their father Jake (Donal Logue) waiting for a train and stepping in front of it to end his life.

It’s a heartbreaking film that you’ll need a pick-me-up from after watching it, and one that I admittedly was apprehensive that would have the dull, negative melodrama of August: Osage County. However, this is a truly beautiful film. I really enjoyed these characters and getting to learn about the sisters’ relationship, and I was surprised by the story because I figured the sisters would be brought together by their father’s suicide, and not Elf’s own suicide attempt.

There are many films based around a “successful” suicide, but this film feels unique in its way as it unpacks a suicide attempt where the person still wants to die. There are so many unknowns when someone commits suicide. Here, we know everything and we know that Elf doesn’t want to be here, and it’s so much harder because we do understand.

The drama is about both sisters coming to terms with this. On Yoli’s side, she’s working hard to help her sister find the will to live; and Elf is fighting equally hard to die. Alison Pill gives a passionate performance cycling through this frustration; asking everyone to help her, but no one seems to be able to. A scene where her frustration boils in a parking garage is one of the film’s best scenes, and also one of the best ways where Michael McGowan goes from anger to humour.

She screams in the parking garage and then takes the elevator up in the hospital and simply tells her mom, Lottie (Mare Winningham) that, “I just had parking trouble.” For Winningham’s side as their mother, she’s so strong as she blames herself for saving Elf despite the Do Not Resuscitate in Elf’s suicide note. She has some really effective moments throughout the film.

Sarah Gadon and Alison Pill in All The Puny Sorrows. (Courtesy of TIFF.)

Gadon’s performance is effective and much more understated, sympathetic to her family members as they deal with Elf’s pain. She’s equally effective, and even stronger when she’s bantering with Pill as Yoli. They can make the audience laugh one minute with McGowan’s sharp dialogue and come to near tears the next. This is especially the case as they talk about their shared love of literature. Yoli talks about one of her latest sexual endeavors, saying that she told the man (Dov Tiefenbach) about her book and he suggests pacing the novel really quickly so it doesn’t become boring. “Writing is hard, you want to get in and get out, like cleaning septic tanks,” he says.

It’s these amusing observations that make this film feel like a special adaptation. As well, their love for literature and quotes really leans into the film’s literary structure; peppered with flashbacks featuring the bulk of Donal Logue as their father, and other snappy scenes like memories. Some of the film’s most beautiful moments are narrated interludes by Yoli as she takes us through her story. My favourite moment is where Lottie apologizes to Yoli for her having so much sadness. “I wanted to tell my mother that when I was a kid I would wake up singing,” says Yoli in narration, as we see a bright shot of six-year-old Yoli riding a bike. “There was no freer soul than me at six.”

Much of the narration feels like beautiful prose, and some exchanges between Yoli and Elf have such thoughtful lines of dialogue, ones you imagine were taken straight from the source material. The dialogue feels like something you don’t traditionally find in film, another reason why this is a special adaptation. All the more impressive is that Yoli and Elf feel so natural saying this dialogue, as some of the dialogue is so literary that it could sound unnatural in delivery for some actors.

Based in Toronto, the film also feels distinctly Canadian with some jokes in the film, like where Yoli name drops an obscure poet and Lottie asks “Is he on the Blue Jays?” Another very Canadian moment is the father mentioning that he attended former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s funeral. These little moments are part of the charm of All My Puny Sorrows, a passionate and funny film. One that’s reflective and beautiful, but also heartbreaking, always striking a thoughtful balance between the two.

Score: 88/100

All My Puny Sorrows has its second digital screening tonight, Sept. 16 at 9 p.m.

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