By James Lindorf
Elfrieda (Sarah Gadon) and Yolandi (Alison Pill) Von Riesen are the diametrically opposed daughters of the most intellectual and free-spirited family from a small conservative Mennonite community. Yoli is in the midst of a bitter divorce jumping from one meaningless relationship to another, while Elf is in a happy and committed marriage. Yoli is suffering from writer’s block, hurting her already floundering career. Elf, on the other hand, is a concert pianist celebrated around the world. Yoli is a whirlwind of emotions, sadness, and anger chief among them, but there is also hope, and no matter how bad things get, she believes her time is coming. Despite her successful career and marriage, Elf suffers from acute depression and a desire to die, much like their father, who killed himself by stepping in front of a train. “All My Puny Sorrows” is based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Miriam Toews and was an official selection of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.
Written and directed by Michael McGowan, the film is centered on the two sisters and how their boundless love makes them enemies. The two are combatants in a fight that could determine Elf’s fate. Whoever comes out as the victor will change the future for their family. The Von Riesen family is a complex group and includes mom Lottie (Mare Winningham) and, in flashbacks, dad Jake (Donal Logue). In a restrictive community, they fought to pursue knowledge and the arts. They appear to be the average blue-collar, middle-class family, but they are unashamedly bookish. In casual conversation, they are prone to reciting poems from memory or dropping names like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Thomas Aquinas. This intellectual element is perhaps the film’s most exciting element and its most significant flaw.
It is hard to imagine the level of pain, fear, and anger felt when these events were taking place in Toews’ personal life. Those events first went through her literary filter, being teased to fit the story she needed to tell and was comfortable sharing with the world. Then it was again filtered through McGowan’s perspective and interpretation as he crafted the film adaptation. Something was lost between the true-life events and the finished film. The actors are giving dynamic performances, but there is a disconnect between the dialogue and its delivery. The conversations sound less like desperate people speaking from the heart and more like literary characters bending to a writer who is too clever.
“All My Puny Sorrows” is filled with wonderful performances, especially from Pill, our central figure and occasional narrator. Gadon holds her own, but her performance is difficult to connect with due to the extreme point of view. Logue has played a father many times throughout his career. Usually, he is the more energetic, happy-go-lucky type, so it is nice to see him play a more reserved character. Though she is the surviving parent, Winningham doesn’t get much more screen time than Logue, but unlike him, she does have a habit of stealing each scene. These emotionally nuanced performances are worth the watch, even if you won’t feel their pain. Despite this disconnect, “All My Puny Sorrows” scores 3 out of 5 on the strength of its acting, direction, and cinematography.
Original Language: English
Director: Michael McGowan
Producer: Michael McGowan, Patrice Theroux, Tyler Levine
Writer: Michael McGowan
Runtime: 1h 43m
Below is a roundtable interview with the cast.