Content warning: Discussions of mental health and suicide
Based on the novel by Miriam Toews, Michael McGowan’s adaptation of All My Puny Sorrows features extraordinarily well-read and articulate characters, who nevertheless struggle to find the words to talk about death. With nuanced direction and fierce acting, the film illustrates the troubled Von Riesen clan: former Mennonites who are intensely literary and almost too smart and prone to quoting prose and poetry for their own good. Though they uphold the immortal words of their favorite authors, this is a family haunted by death and sorrow. Yoli (Alison Pill) is a struggling and soon-to-be-divorced writer, her sister Elf (Sarah Gadon) is a noted concert pianist who has been struggling with depression and thoughts of death for years. While the specter of the suicide of the Von Riesen patriarch haunts the central story, (his death by stepping in front of a train in the middle of a bleak winter opens the film), the narrative focuses on the women of the family.
Though we keep our gaze riveted on the relationship between Yoli and Elf, their mother Lottie (Mare Winningham), aunt Tina (Mimi Kuzyk), and Yoli’s feisty and defiant teenage daughter Nora (Amybeth McNulty) round out the cast. Elf attempts suicide, leading Yoli on an increasingly desperate quest to understand why and stop her sister from making another attempt. The dialogue feels almost theatrical, as the sisters get into witty banter and have a flair for melodrama. Yet while the witty conversations serve their purpose of illustrating the literary pedigree of the characters, it can feel almost too performative at times. The dialogue can come across as rather showy, such as how Yoli tries to spout meaningful statements when her poor daughter is caught in the middle of her parents’ divorce and must ask her mother to sign the divorce papers. Even when Yoli first visits Elf in the hospital, she sarcastically quips “we have to stop meeting like this.” They share witty exchanges and talk about her suicide note like it is a piece of writing to critique in a workshop, while Yoli questions her placement in the suicide note. Perhaps this forced dialogue is meant to show us just how difficult it is for these characters to express their raw emotions — making them resort to witty lines to mask the pain — but it makes it hard to hear real humans beneath the facade.
The characters (and the actors playing them) sparkle in their brilliance, even as Elf loses herself in the darkness during her piano playing or Yoli feels like she is dealing with a Sisyphean struggle to try to write. The emotions are jagged and raw, and their roots in real family history for the novel’s author are apparent. When Elf asks her sister to take her to Switzerland, where she can visit a clinic that will help with assisted suicide, though Yoli obsesses with finding out why, the film does not try to smooth things over inauthentically by giving any easy answers. Though Elf is determined to die, she does not want to die alone, and her determination is always infused with a sense of vulnerability. Yoli’s unyielding desire to keep her sister alive — and Elf’s unyielding desire to die — put them irreconcilably at odds with one another, and though their dialogue may feel like battles of wit, we still mostly get to see them as flawed figures with real emotions, rather than pawns in a broader cultural debate about assisted suicide.
Ultimately, while the film and novel diligently signify how the characters define themselves by how well-read and culturally literate they are, the overwrought dialogue and literariness of it all undermine the very emotions the characters are trying to express. Characters quoting poems or making references to philosophers, rather than speaking directly from their hearts, may show us just how difficult it is for them to do so — but why can’t we ever just see them at a loss for words? Or, if they do feel the need to fill every bit of quiet with words, why can’t we see a little more of their struggle to piece a sentence together? Even characters’ expressions of the difficulties of communication still come out of their mouths as fully-formed quips. All My Puny Sorrows is a well-acted adaptation with real pain at its core, but on the screen Toews’s prose sounds even less naturalistic; while he creates a faithful adaptation of the source material, McGowan might find more power in the silence and let some words get lost in translation to find something new.