All My Puny Sorrows is so much deeper than just Suicide: The Movie. While this topic has been explored before by filmmakers, something about this story feels gripping and personal in a way that others before it have not. Based on the acclaimed novel by Miriam Toews, writer/director Michael McGowan adapts the material with the necessary care deserving of the story’s considerable significance. This is not a playful dramedy; rather, All My Puny Sorrows approaches suicide and depression with proper (and oftentimes ugly) dramatic heft.
“How long is a life supposed to last?” The film presents us with an intense ideological question right off the bat, indicating this will not be an easy watch. The introductory scene for All My Puny Sorrows is a dark one indeed, as we follow the father of the family on train tracks moments before he lets the train hit him. This turns out to be an unforeseen tragedy for all three women (mother and two daughters). The narrative unfurls through use of flashback to flesh out the characters (particularly the relationship of the two sisters), while in present day we bear witness to the ugly imprint of grief and trauma.
Having family members that suffer from depression and anxiety myself, I noted a gripping commitment to telling the truth in both lead performances. The sharp dialogue shared between them is laced with literary references and self-deprecating humor. As self-doubting writer Yoli, Alison Pill imbues confusion and frustration in the understanding of her off-color family. Pill’s best scene is a parking garage freak-out, where she is finally able to unleash the dormant emotional rage that Yoli has kept under wraps for so long. Yoli fears she may be “already on the downside of a largely forgettable career,” as her last book sold only 896 copies. Her older-than-she-seems daughter, Nora (Amybeth McNulty), is quite a handful, and Yoli has still neglected in signing divorce papers.
On the flip side, her sister, Elf (Sarah Gadon), is a successful professional piano player, but she is unhappy. Elf has a long history of struggles with depression and suicide. When Yoli gets the call that Elf has attempted suicide, she does not seem surprised. Yoli’s primary roadblock is in understanding why Elf wants to cut her life short in the first place. “I want to die—this wasn’t a mistake,” Elf tells her, and it seems to be the first time Yoli is truly able to digest this information. Gadon makes Elf into a tragic character, but one whose ultimate motivations are easy to understand. Elf’s explanation that “every day is a repetition of the same disappointment” made it easier to grasp her internal struggles.
The film aims to explore the way their father’s suicide has gripped them and never let go even all these years later. Elf’s own pursuit of ending her life remains central through the full runtime. All My Puny Sorrows is a movie with a message. Michael McGowan is sure to do more with it than surface-level, which extends to the upsetting finale. The film gives us something of an epilogue to close out in the proper way it deserves. While closure may be too strong a word, the audience is at the very least understanding of why the story had to end this way. McGowan aimed to recapture the “truth and beauty” in the original novel—I have no doubt that he encapsulated both of these goals with tremendous effort.
All My Puny Sorrows screened at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.