*** CW: Depression and suicide ***
Mental illness isn’t easily captured in film. It certainly isn’t often captured with the nuance and empathy that it deserves. While director Michael McGowan is without a doubt attempting to shine a light on those who suffer from depressive episodes and suicidal thoughts, All My Puny Sorrows fails at infusing the story with notable compassion, no matter the words that come spilling from the characters mouths. It’s this, despite the committed performances from the case and the tale of generations of resilient women who must weather unfathomable and personal hardships, that ultimately sours what might’ve been a moving character study.
Adapted by McGowan from the novel of the same name by Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows focuses on the women of the Von Riesen family and, in particular, the lives of the two sisters at the heart of the film, Yoli (Alison Pill) and Elf (Sarah Gadon.) Yoli is a floundering writer whose last book only sold just under 900 copies while Elf is an accomplished touring pianist. Yoli has a 16-year-old daughter and is going through a rocky divorce when she learns that Elf has attempted suicide and we are told soon after that this wasn’t her first attempt. The two along with their mother Lottie (Mare Winningham) have already suffered the loss of their father/husband who killed himself years earlier, causing the remaining family members to leave the Mennonite community they’d lived in. Between the loss of their father and Elf’s mental health deteriorating, the family must try and rally to once more face their demons head-on.
Any success of the film can be largely attributed to the cast and the book it’s based on, with Toews beautifully laying out the tragedy of trying to love someone enough that it heals them while simultaneously realizing that sometimes, it simply isn’t enough when depression has fully consumed someone. McGowan somehow loses that sense of humanity along the way. There’s pleasure in watching as the script finds humor in darkness, especially between family members. That’s real and it’s uncomfortable but it’s a coping mechanism that many of us who have inappropriately laughed in periods of grieving understand. Where the script falters is in its inability to infuse the scenes between family members with any sense of warmth. Gadon and Pill are electric together, yet it’s shot with such a clinical eye, with the grays and whites of Elf’s hospital rooms coloring the tonality of the film as well. It’s cold and detached when it should be anything but.
This cold approach to the direction is further heightened by the didactic and unnatural pacing of the dialogue. Many of the conversations between Lottie and Yoli are particularly stiff, even as both performers do their utmost to bring life to the words they’re saying. So much of it though feels directly taken from passages of the book, rather than adapted in a way that suits the flow of onscreen conversation.
If anything comes close to invigorating the film it’s the ferocious performance delivered by Pill. As Yoli, she shows us the cracks immediately and the vulnerability and self-doubt that possesses her. She’s captivating, moving between comedy and drama with such depth in both areas that allows her character a more distinct personality than any of the other characters in the film. What’s best about her performance too is how she visualizes her character’s inability to keep her rage under wraps. We see the mental fight every time she goes on to say something inspired by how furious she is and how disappointed she is in everyone around her, herself and Elf included, for not fighting in the way that she expects them to. While she and Gadon have clear chemistry and Gadon delivers a haunting performance as the luminescent Elf, with so much of the story told from Yoli’s perspective and with Pill’s presence overwhelming the screen, Elf’s struggles, while not an afterthought, are utilized more to cause conflict for those around her when instead more time should’ve been dedicated to her. The film errs a little too close to making her enigmatic and vacant, rather than a real, breathing soul whose depression doesn’t make up all of who she is, even if it’s taken the lead.
When the film trains its eye on the pervasive nature of loss and how humans have gone about learning to move on it briefly succeeds. Loss catches us all at the most innocuous and unassuming moments that will then go on to hold permanent residence in your memory as the moment when this ordinary activity turned into a signpost for death. The film fleetingly plays with this idea but, by the time the films ended and even after it’s managed to wring a few tears out of (this) viewers, they’ve already spent too much time dispensing of the heart of the film to focus on what is being said rather than being felt, and for a story as emotionally volatile as this, it deserved greater significance being put on how we feel grief, rather than just how we talk about it.