As you might imagine from a movie that begins with the voiceover, “In the history of mankind has there ever been a more obvious truth than the statement, ‘We’re all going to die?” and yet in our bones, how many of us can conceptualize that,” “All My Puny Sorrows” does not shy away from the delicate matter of death.
Struggling writer Yoli (Alison Pill) and concert pianist Elf (Sarah Gadon)—short for Elfrieda—are sisters who fled a strict, rural Mennonite upbringing to forge lives in the arts. A deep bond exists between the, even though their lives took very different paths.
Yoli is in the midst of a divorce after sixteen years of marriage. As daughter Nora (Amybeth McNulty) is lashes out, Yoli wonders aloud if she’s handling things correctly. “Ending sixteen years of monogamy with Dan has triggered some kind of weird animal reaction,” she says. “To be honest, the last few months have not been my proudest.”
Elf, though internationally successful and happily married, has lost her lust for life. When she attempts suicide for the second time, Yoli comes to her side, hoping to help her sister avoid the same fate as their father Jake (Donal Logue) who killed himself when they were children, but her pleas fall on deaf ears.
“Will you take me to Switzerland?” asks Elf.
“Yeah, we’ll get Swatches,” says Yoli.
But Elf wants to go to an assisted suicide clinic, “where dying is legal and you don’t have to die alone.”
Writer-director Michael McGowan, adapting the novel-of-the-same-name by Miriam Toews, tells a story all about grief and death that examines the purpose of life. McGowan sensitively shows how life’s decisions have echoes felt by everyone in the inner circle and beyond.
These themes are enhanced by the performances of Pill, Gadon and Mare Winningham as their beleaguered mother. The literary script often feels as though the characters are speaking in carefully constructed prose, but in the mouths of these performers love, frustration and acceptance of the situation is palpable. Pill and Gadon click as sisters, bringing to the screen a lifetime of love and petty squabbles.
“All My Puny Sorrows” is an emotional movie that embraces the totality of the situation, the exasperation, sorrow and even occasional humor.