Review: ‘All My Puny Sorrows,’ starring Alison Pill, Sarah Gadon, Amybeth McNulty, Donal Logue and Mare Winningham

September 11, 2021

by Carla Hay

Sarah Gadon and Alison Pill in “All My Puny Sorrows” (Photo courtesy of AMPS Productions Inc.)

“All My Puny Sorrows” 

Directed by Michael McGowan

Culture Representation: Taking place in North Bay, Ontario, the dramatic film “All My Puny Sorrows” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one Asian and one black person) representing the working-class, middle-class and upper-middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two sisters with opposite personalities and family tragedies have emotional disagreements with each other because one of the sisters is suicidal and wants her sister to take her to a euthanasia clinic in Switzerland.

Culture Audience: “All My Puny Sorrows” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the Miriam Toews novel on which the movie is based, as well as to viewers who have a fondness for watching slow-paced and pretentious movies about unhappy people.

Mare Winningham in “All My Puny Sorrows” (Photo courtesy of AMPS Productions Inc.)

Admirable performances by Alison Pill and Sarah Gadon can’t quite save “All My Puny Sorrows,” which sinks under the weight of its pretension and offers an incomplete sketch of a Canadian family plagued by tragedies. Written and directed by Michael McGowan, this depressing and frequently dull movie is based on Miriam Toews’ 2014 novel of the same name. The “All My Puny Sorrows” novel was largely inspired by Toews’ own real-life experiences with family tragedies. The movie “All My Puny Sorrows” had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

There are so many somber and upsetting things that happen to the fictional Von Riesen family at the center of this story that “All My Puny Sorrows” should’ve been titled “All My Trigger Warnings.” The Von Riesens live in North Bay, Ontario (where this movie was filmed), and they come from a Mennonite community with strict rules on how to live. The opening scene shows family patriarch Jake Von Riesen (played by Donal Logue) committing suicide by standing in front of a moving train. It sets the tone for this death-obsessed movie, which has some very contrived comedy that’s awkwardly placed in certain scenes.

Most of the movie takes place 10 years after Jake’s suicide, but there are some flashbacks showing Jake and his family at various points in their lives. The movie’s protagonist/voiceover narrator is Yolanda “Yoli” Von Riesen (played by Pill), who is one of the two children that Jake had with his nurturing wife Lottie (played by Mare Winningham). Their other child is daughter Elfreida “Elf” Von Riesen (played by Gadon), who’s a year or two older than Yoli. Both sisters are very intelligent, but they’ve got deep-seated emotional problems that they handle differently.

Jake committed suicide when Elf and Yoli were in the mid-20s. The sisters, who are now in their mid-30s, are no longer part of the Mennonite community. Yoli and Elf have contrasting personalities and are leading very different lives from each other. Yoli’s life is messy and financially unstable, but she has a very strong will to live and doesn’t understand why people with everything going for them can be suicidal. Elf’s life, on the surface, seems like she “has it all,” but Elf is chronically unhappy and wants to die.

Yoli is a children’s book author who is very sarcastic, often rude, and is prone to losing her patience and her temper. She got married at 18 years old and is in the process of divorcing her estranged husband Dan, who is not seen in the movie but only heard when Yoli plays a voice mail message from him. Dan is upset with Yoli because she’s been postponing signing their divorce papers. Yoli and Dan have a 16-year-old daughter together named Nora (played by Amybeth McNulty), who lives with Yoli and has inherited her mother’s dry wit and sarcasm.

Yoli’s most recently published book was a flop, and she’s currently struggling to finish her current book by the deadline. She mentions in an early scene in the movie that she’s already spent the advance money for the book that she’s writing. In a phone conversation with Elf, Yoli worries out loud that her career as a writer might have peaked.

Elf is an elegant and successful solo concert pianist who plays to sold-out audiences. Her husband Nic (played by Aly Mawji) adores her, but he travels frequently for his job and is away from home a lot. Elf and Nic don’t have any children. The movie doesn’t mention what Nic does for a living. Elf’s personality is more introverted and reserved than Yoli’s personality. Elf is a lot more polite than Yoli, who has a tendency to say tactless things that are meant to hurt people’s feelings.

An early scene in the movie shows Elf performing at one of her concerts, where she gets a standing ovation but she looks very sad and doesn’t even try to smile. After the concert, she’s seen sitting alone on some steps outside and crying like someone who’s in serious emotional pain. It’s the first sign that Elf is deeply troubled.

It isn’t long before Yoli and her mother Lottie get a call that they’ve gotten multiple times before: Elf is in a hospital because she tried to commit suicide. One of the first things that Yoli says when she visits Elf in the hospital after this latest suicide attempt is: “We’ve got to stop meeting like this.” It’s an example of Yoli’s sarcasm that she uses as a shield to cope with her own emotional pain.

Much of “All My Puny Sorrows” revolves around the contentious conversations that Yoli and Elf have while Elf is recovering in the hospital. Yoli can be self-absorbed because she scolds Elf for not caring about how her suicide attempts are affecting Yoli. Yoli also sardonically talks about where Yoli’s name was mentioned in Elf’s suicide note.

“Can we talk about my placement?” Yoli asks. “I was two-thirds down on the list.” Elf replies, “I just didn’t want it to go to your head.” Then, the two sisters tell each other, “I hate you.” Yoli feels bad about this angry statement and says she’s sorry.

Elf says there’s no need for an apology and adds: “Apologies are not the bedrock of civilized societies.” Yoli responds, “Remind me: What is the bedrock of civilized societies?” Elf says, “Libraries.”

Who talks like that in real life? No one except very pretentious people who want to show off how well-read they are. And that’s what happens for a great deal of this movie, where Yoli and Elf spout lines from books and poems that they love, as if these words have the magical answers to their problems. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

There’s nothing wrong with expressing a love of literature, but it’s done in such heavy-handed way in this movie, viewers will be rolling their eyes at some of the fake-sounding conversations that litter “All My Puny Sorrows.” The title of “All My Puny Sorrows” comes from a line in an untitled poem that Samuel Coleridge wrote to a friend. You can bet that this poem will be mentioned in the movie.

It’s not shown until much later in the film that Jake opened a library in their Mennonite community. Jake took pride in this library. And although it’s not shown in the movie, he obviously passed on a love of reading to his daughters. One of the movie’s flaws is that it doesn’t show enough of who Jake was a husband and a father, in order to give better context of how his suicide devastated his family.

The movie has brief flashbacks that only show snippets of what life was like for Yoli and Elf in their childhood and teen years. In one flashback that takes place when Yoli and Elf are pre-teens, the sisters and their parents are seen looking mournful on one of the last days in a house that they have to move out of because a church elder wants to move into the house. It’s mentioned that even though Jake built the house, he has to follow the orders of the elders in his religion.

In another scene that takes place when Yoli and Elf are in their mid-teens, two elders visit the Von Riesen family home to discourage Elf from pursuing her dream of going to a university to study music. During this tension-filled meeting, the elders are outraged that a 15-year-old girl would want to live outside the Mennonite community and interact with heathens at a university.

Elf is playing the piano in a nearby room, and the elders order Jake to tell her to stop. However, Elf refuses to stop playing until she’s finished the piece. Meanwhile, her mother Lottie is fuming in the kitchen at this family intrusion and can be seen furiously and loudly chopping some meat. It’s the only scene in the movie that shows how far back that certain members of the Von Riesen clan disagreed with and were willing to rebel against the repressive rules of their Mennonite community.

However, the movie brings up a lot of questions and leaves them unanswered. “All My Puny Sorrows” certainly implies that this restrictive Mennonite community has something to do with the family’s unhappiness. But how much did damage did it do to this family and what type of trauma influenced Jake’s and Elf’s suicidal thoughts? Those questions are never answered in the movie.

Lottie has a sister named Tina, who is more outspoken and assertive than Lottie is. At one point in the movie, Tina tells Yoli, “Your mother and I buried 14 brothers and sisters.” And no further explanation is given in the movie. Why did all of these siblings die? And why even put that in the movie if you’re just going to make people wonder what happened? It’s an example of how underdeveloped the screenplay is when it comes to the Von Riesen family’s history.

However, there’s no shortage of scenes where Yoli has angry outbursts. There’s one melodramatic scene in the hospital parking garage where she has a full-on screaming meltdown when she starts to park next to a car, and the other car’s driver (played by Josh Bainbridge) asks her in an irritated tone to be careful not to hit his car. Yoli’s ranting response is to yell at the top of her lungs and berate him by saying that her problems are a lot bigger than how she’s going to park her car. He’s so alarmed at her unhinged reaction that he takes a photo of her car’s license plate, in case she does something illegal.

During the conversations that Yoli and Elf have in the hospital, Elf tells Yoli that she wants to die and nothing that anyone says will convince her to change her mind. Elf then mentions to Yoli that she found out about a clinic in Switzerland that does legal euthanasia. Elf asks Yoli to secretly take her to the clinic because Elf doesn’t want to be alone when she dies. Yoli immediately refuses this request and gets very upset when Elf keeps pestering her to take her to this euthanasia clinic.

Because Yoli has a tendency to be self-centered, she doesn’t have much empathy for the anguish that a suicidal person such as Elf is experiencing. At one point, Yoli scolds Elf for not appreciating all the things that Yoli thinks should make Elf happy: a loving spouse, a thriving career, a nice house and a certain amount of financial wealth.

But this type of lecture just shows Yoli’s emotional ignorance, because there are plenty of examples of people who’ve committed suicide when they have all the things that society says are supposed to make people happy. After having a parent commit suicide, Yoli still seems to have a problem understanding that suicidal tendencies aren’t about exterior things but rather how people feel inside about themselves.

The movie offers no insight into why Jake committed suicide. And although “All My Puny Sorrows” should be commended for showing some of the complexities and nuances of the main female characters in the story, it shouldn’t be at the expense of sidelining the male characters and making them very one-dimensional. Jake remains a mystery by the end of the movie.

Elf’s husband Nic has only a few scenes. He’s a concerned spouse but is depicted as very bland and hard to read, with no real sense that Elf’s suicide attempts are deeply affecting him. Dr. Johns (played by Martin Roach), the psychiatrist who’s treating Elf, offers nothing but clinical talk. Just like Elf’s husband Nic, Dr. Roach is reduced to less than 10 minutes of screen time.

The men who are currently in Yoli’s life are, by her own admission, just sexual flings. In a conversation at the hospital with Elf, Yoli gets candid about how her divorce is affecting her: “Ending 16 years of monogamy with Dan has triggered some kind of animal reaction. I might be a slut now.” Elf responds, “You’re not a slut. Didn’t I teach you anything?”

However Yoli wants to describe her sex life, it’s clear that she thinks that the sexual experiences she’s currently having are meaningless to her. In a scene that is ultimately useless, Yoli meets up with a mechanic named Jason (played by Dov Tiefenbach), and they end up having sex in a car. Yoli and Jason already knew each other, because they grew up in the same Mennonite community, and they both left the community when they were old enough to go to college. Yoli and Jason hadn’t seen each other in years before this sexual hookup, but this scene doesn’t add anything substantial to the story except to show that someone else from Yoli’s childhood is no longer a Mennonite.

There’s an earlier scene in the movie where Yoli is having sex with one of her flings named Finbar (played by Michael Musi), a nerdy businessman type, and she looks very bored, like she can’t wait for the sex to be over. She doesn’t even seem to like Finbar very much and seems irritated by his “neat freak” quirks when she asks him why he folded his clothes before they had sex. Later in the movie, when Yoli has a conversation with Finbar about a death in the family, he’s very insensitive, which is a further indication that he’s not the right person for Yoli.

There’s a lot of gloom, doom and death in this movie, but one of the best things about “All My Puny Sorrows” is that Pill and Gadon have convincing sisterly chemistry together. Their scenes crackle with the uncomfortable but realistic intensity of family members who have a love/hate relationship. Winningham is also very good as the siblings’ mother Lottie, who doesn’t take sides in this sister feud. Lottie is trying to stoically hide her heartbreak over all of the deaths in her family.

Yoli’s 16-year-old daughter Nora is not in the movie enough and is unfortunately reduced to being a stereotypical movie teenager with bratty tendencies. Most of Nora’s screen time consists of her getting annoyed with her mother and mouthing off to her. Nora has this to say when her father Dan calls to ask Nora to tell Yoli to sign the divorce papers. Nora says to Yoli, “You do realize it’s emotionally damaging to put me in the middle of your divorce, right?” (Even though it was actually Dan who made this uncomfortable request.) Yoli asks, “Whose side are you on?” Nora answers, “Mine!”

“All My Puny Sorrows” is one of these movies that seems to think that talented actors portraying characters that are wallowing in misery while they occasionally utter lines of poetry will make this a “serious” film. But there are quite a few off-putting choices that were made in the screenplay. One of them is toward the end of the film, Yoli suddenly starts having visions of seeing a dead family member and has conversations with that person. The movie’s shift from realism to surrealism is abrupt and clumsy.

Although “All My Puny Sorrows” is certainly well-cast and the technical aspects (such as cinematography and production design) are perfectly adequate, the movie comes up short in character development and context. Why are all these deaths happening in this family? And wouldn’t people get suspicious if 14 siblings (who weren’t old) died from the same family? Don’t expect any answers to those questions. This movie just wants miserable family members who argue with each other to be enough for this story that is unsatisfingly vague in too many areas that should matter.

Review: ‘News of the World,’ starring Tom Hanks

December 23, 2020

Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel in “News of the World” (Photo by Bruce W. Talamon/Universal Pictures)

“News of the World”

Directed by Paul Greengrass

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1870 in Texas, the dramatic film “News of the World” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Native Americans and African Americans) representing the working-class and the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A widower Civil War veteran who makes a living as a news reader is unexpectedly tasked with the responsibility of transporting an orphaned girl to her closest living relatives.

Culture Audience: “News of the World” will appeal primarily to people interested in dramatic stories about American life in the South during the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era.

Tom Hanks in “News of the World” (Photo by Bruce W. Talamon/Universal Pictures)

“News of the World” solidly offers the tried-and-true concept of an adult who’s inexperienced with taking care of children but who’s suddenly forced to be responsible for the well-being and safety of a child for a considerable period of time. It’s usually the stuff of comedies, but “News of the World” is a serious-minded drama that once again has Tom Hanks playing a heroic figure. In “News of the World,” he’s a traveling Civil War veteran in Texas who’s never been a father, but he’s been given the responsibility of bringing an orphaned girl who doesn’t speak English to her closest living relatives whom she’s never met. You know exactly how this movie is supposed to end.

Directed by Paul Greengrass, “News of the World” is a well-made but not a particularly innovative film because so much of this story has been done before in other movies that are essentially “road trip” films. “News of the World” will satisfy people who like shoot ’em up Westerns (since there are several shootout scenes), and the film will also please people who like somewhat melancholy dramas about human perseverance under harsh conditions. The movie is nearly two hours long but sometimes feels like it’s longer because there are considerable stretches when it meanders at a slow pace.

“News of the World” is based on Paulette Jiles’ 2016 novel of the same name. Greengrass wrote the adapted screenplay with Luke Davies. It’s a good screenplay (but not outstanding) that all the actors handle with skill, even if at times the supporting characters come across as a little too generic because of the transient nature of the plot. The cinematic version of this story mostly does justice to the book because of the top-notch cinematography, costume design and production design. Greengrass and Hanks previously worked together in 2013’s “Captain Phillips,” which is based on a true story and is an overall better film than “News of the World.”

If you think Hanks is playing a stoic good guy who finds out that he’s a lot better at taking care of a child than he originally thought, then you would be absolutely correct. Hanks portrays Capt. Jefferson “Jeffrey” Kyle Kidd, a veteran of three wars and a widower with no children. He’s based in Texas and goes from town to town, making a living as a news reader: someone who reads news reports in newspapers for a gathering of townspeople and reads the reports with an engaging, storytelling style.

It’s 1870, five years after the U.S. Civil War has ended. It’s revealed later in the story that Jefferson’s wife died in 1865, at the age of 33. The Reconstruction Era is under way, but there’s a still a lot of resentment from Southerners toward the federal government and against the Union soldiers who defeated the Confederate soldiers during the war. The slaves have been freed under the Emancipation Proclamation, but white supremacy is still the law, and therefore people of color don’t have the same rights as white people.

Racism is addressed in this movie in a predictable way that might or might not be satisfactory enough, depending on your perspective. The movie begins in Wichita Falls in North Texas, where Jefferson has just had a very well-received reading session with the local white people. He seems to think it’s a friendly town, but then he gets a chilling reminder about the brutality of racism.

While riding his horse in a forest area, Jefferson sees some bloody drag marks on the ground. The marks look like a human body was being dragged. And sure enough, Jefferson finds out that the bloody drag marks lead to the body of a lynched African American man. (The man’s face is not shown in the movie, because it might have been too explicit.) Attached to the man’s body is a sign that reads: “Texas Says No! This is a white man’s country.”

Jefferson is very disturbed by this crime scene, but as someone who’s just passing through town, there’s nothing he can do about it. Suddenly, he sees a blonde girl (played by Helena Zengel), who’s about 9 or 10 years old. She’s wearing a deerskin dress, and she runs away in the woods when she sees Jefferson. He chases after her because she looks like an unaccompanied child who could be in danger. She’s a feisty child because she bites Jefferson’s hand when he catches up to her.

Jefferson sees that the girl has run back to the wreckage of a carriage accident that has resulted in the the death of the male driver. Jefferson finds some paperwork in the car wreck that reveals the girl’s birth name is Johannna Leonberger. She is an orphan whose parents were killed by an invasion of Kiowa Indians six years before.

And apparently, she was raised by the Kiowa Indians because she only speaks Kiowa. The girl’s Kiowan name is Cicada. Johanna’s Kiowa Indian family was massacred, so she is now an orphan again.

The paperwork found at the carriage accident indicates that Johanna was being driven to her closest living relatives: an aunt named Anna Leonberger and Anna’s husband Wilhelm Leonberger, who are German immigrants living in Castroville, Texas. Jefferson thinks he can just drop the child off at the Reconstruction Era version of Child Protective Services. But he finds out that the agent who’s supposed to handle this type of child welfare case is out of town and won’t be back for three months. Jefferson tells the office that he will handle the responsibility of taking Johanna to her aunt and uncle in Castroville.

Jefferson has enough compassion not to abandon Johanna, but he doesn’t want to change his plans to travel to the next town to do a news-reading session that was already scheduled. And so, he reluctantly brings Johanna with him, with the intention of devoting the rest of the journey to bringing Johanna to her aunt and uncle. Jefferson knows that he will be losing a lot of income by taking this unexpected trip, because he won’t be able to stop and do as many news readings as he’d like to do.

Jefferson asks a married couple he knows—Simon Boudlin (played by Ray McKinnon) and Doris Boudlin (played by Mare Winningham)—to look after Johanna while Jefferson is busy with the news reading session that he has scheduled for that evening. But in a story like this, you know that something will go wrong. And it does.

Jefferson comes back from the news reading session to find out that Johanna has run away, just as a rainstorm hits the area. It leads to Jefferson, Simon and Doris frantically looking for Johanna in the dark and rainy night. Across an embankment, Johanna sees a tribe of Indians traveling by horse and tries to get their attention because she thinks she belongs with them. But the tribe is too far away, and Jefferson soon catches up to her.

Johanna realizes that she needs Jefferson in order to survive because no one else is looking out for her. Before Jefferson leaves town with Johanna in an apothecary wagon given to them by the Boudlins, Simon gives Jefferson a loaded revolver. And you just know that gun is going to come in handy later on, because a trip like this won’t go smoothly.

The rest of the story is what you might expect from a tale about an adult and a child—both complete strangers and out of their comfort zones—who have been forced to travel together and slowly learn to trust each other. And because there’s the language barrier, it prevents these two travelers in “News of the World” from having the snap’n’crackle dialogue that makes the “True Grit” movies (another 1870s Western saga about a man and a girl on a road trip) so much fun to watch. “News of the World” is a mostly solemn and sometimes suspenseful story about what Jefferson and Johanna encounter in their travels.

Although they have plenty of dangerous experiences on this journey, Jefferson and Johanna also have some friendly encounters, demonstrating how generous people are capable of being to strangers. At a boarding house in Dallas, they meet the woman in charge who plays a key role in breaking through the language barrier between Jefferson and Johanna. This kind stranger is named Mrs. Gannett (played by Elizabeth Marvel), and she knows how to speak Kiowa, so she acts as a translator.

One of the most memorable parts of the story is an extended shootout sequence that happens between Jefferson and a creepy criminal named J.G. Almay (played by Michael Angelo Covino), who brings two cronies along for the shootout. The trouble with Almay begins one evening when Jefferson and Johanna are getting ready to leave Dallas at night.

Almay notices Johanna and offers to buy her from Jefferson, who immediately refuses. It’s implied that Almay has lecherous intentions, and Jefferson is well-aware that this scumbag probably wants to abuse Johanna. Almay doesn’t want to take no for an answer, so Jefferson and Almay get into a brief scuffle over it.

Two federal officers happen to notice the fight and break it up. Jefferson explains what happened and shows the paperwork to prove that he has the authority to bring Johanna to her relatives. Almay is then arrested, but before he’s carted off to jail, he yells at Jefferson: “I’ll be seeing you, captain! You hear me? I’m coming for you!”

Almay gets out on bail and soon has two other cowboy thugs (played by Clay James and Cash Lilley) accompanying him (each on a separate horse) to follow Jefferson and Johanna’s carriage. It’s now daylight, and somehow these three stalkers have found out where Jefferson and Johanna are and have already caught up to them. The chase scene leads to a clifftop shootout that’s the most action-packed part of the movie. It’s also a pivotal scene in the movie because it’s during this ordeal that Johanna shows that she’s willing and able to be of great help to Jefferson.

Another nemesis in the story is a town leader named Mr. Farley (played by Thomas Francis Murphy), who owns a lot of property and rules the town almost like a dictator. He has some sons whom he uses as his personal group of enforcers. And when Jefferson comes to town, Mr. Farley wants to tell Jefferson what kind of news he should read to the citizens: only news that will make Mr. Farley look good.

Jefferson doesn’t like being told what to do, so he lets the townspeople decide what stories they want Jefferson to read. It’s a power move that results in more conflict and another shootout. And someone with wavering loyalties ends up taking Jefferson’s side.

Not all of the adversaries on this trip are human. The weather plays a role in causing some frightening moments. A scene that’s a particular standout is when Joanna and Jefferson are caught in a dust storm and get separated from each other. The work of cinematographer Dariusz Wolski is put to excellent use in this tension-filled scene.

Because “News of the World” is centered on the evolving relationship between Jefferson and Johanna, viewers should not expect a lot of character development from any other people in the movie. And the only supporting characters who speak on camera are white people, perhaps as a way for the filmmakers to portray the deep-seated racial segregation in 1870 Texas. People of color in the movie (Native Americans and a few African Americans) are not given any significant dialogue, even in a scene where Johanna approaches some Kiowa Indians and talks to them. (What she says to them is not shown on camera.) Texas has always been a state with a significant Latino population, but inexplicably, there are no Latinos with speaking lines in this movie.

Hanks delivers a quality performance, as one might expect. But his co-star Zengel is especially impressive because she has to express a lot different emotions with very little dialogue. “News of the World” hits a lot of familiar tropes and has the type of sweeping musical score from James Newton Howard that is very much in the vein of traditional Westerns from Hollywood movie studios. The movie is the equivalent of American comfort food: People know what to expect, and there’s no real departure from the filmmaking recipe of a Western drama about an American hero.

Universal Pictures will release “News of the World” in U.S. cinemas on December 25, 2020. The movie’s VOD release date is January 15, 2021.