A family haunted by suicides past and present wrestles with Camus’ “the only serious question in life” in “All My Puny Sorrows,” a somber and biting new adaptation of Miriam Toew’s book, filmed by the director of “Saint Ralph.”
Two of Canada’s finest, Alison Pill and Sarah Gadon, play artistically-inclined sisters, raised “in the community” of Mennonites scarred by whatever that upbringing denied them when their father (Donal Logue) took his own life in the most emphatic way one can — stepping in front of a train in the filn’s opening scene.
Elfrieda or “Elf” (Gadon of “True Detective”) is a celebrated and beautiful concert pianist. Yolandi or “Yoli (Pill, of “Vice” and TV’s “Star Trek: Picard”) is a novelist parsing out her latest book, fearing she’s “peaked” before 40 and that it’s all downhill from here.
“All My Puny Sorrows” is built on their debates over Elf’s latest suicide attempt, and her determination to make the next one permanent. The two bicker and banter as only sibling’s who’ve been through it can — joking about one’s “placement” in the suicide note — with flashbacks revealing the controlling, smothering nature of “the community,” their soulful father and loving but blunt mother (Mare Winningham) trying to cope with gifted children whose talents predestine them for greater things.
Elf fumes over nurses and others in the hospital for “equating intelligence with a desire to live,” while Yoli tries to lighten the mood. “Do you have any desire to rejoin the world? Thinking of reasons to stay alive?”
Elf’s “You have a low grade understanding of despair” seems a low blow. Yoli’s marriage has ended, her new lover is an insensate dullard and her teen daughter (Amybeth McNulty) does what teen daughters do — punishes and judges.
Such movie (“Whose Life is It Anyway,” “‘night, Mother” both based on plays) are cursed with an interminable “terminal” quality, which “Puny Sorrows” tries to overcome with literature and music — quoting poets (Philip Larkin), glimpsed concerts, suggesting Camus’ question can be intellectualized and rationalized.
There’s no judgement here, not from the sister, the hospital shrink (Martin Roach) or the mother.
“You carry a lot of sadness, and for that I am sorry” Mom apologizes — to Yoli, not Elf. Neither sister seems to be in the healthiest place.
Director Michael McGowan, whose specialty is downbeat, musing movies about meaning and/or mourning (“Still Mine” and “One Week” preceded “Saint Vincent”), gives “All My Puny Sorrows” a blue-grey cast that matches the mood. It looks and feels fatalistic and Scandinavian.
The acting can be measured and restrained — with Winningham’s mother keeping it all together, realistic about the gifts and shortcomings of raising children in “the community” and carrying the guilt of that. Pill and Gadon’s sisters have their understandable meltdowns under their individual strains.
“All My Puny Sorrows” never quite escapes the burden of its genre. The literary framework artificially raises the tone of the discussion, but heavy helpings of voice-over narration weigh on it with a gravitas that is already implied and need not be pounded into our ears, scene after scene.
That said, it never quite lapses into glib or draining, the way most screen treatments of this subject and this debate do. And while it’s not for everyone, intellectualized, rationalized, justified and emotionalized, it’s still an honest enough treatment of an imponderable question, the only one that matters, according to Albert Camus, “whether to kill yourself or not.”
Rating: Rated R for language and brief sexuality
Cast: Alison Pill, Sarah Gadon, Donal Logue, Mimi Kuzyk and Mare Winningham.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Michael McGowan, based on the novel by Miriam Toews. A Momentum/eOne release.
Running time: 1:43