September 11, 2021
by Carla Hay
“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.
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.