"All My Puny Sorrows" sings with a sharp wit and first-rate performances

All My Puny Sorrows (2022)

The contemplation or act of suicide can be very tricky—not to mention, heavy—subject matter to take on in any form of storytelling. Based on the semi-autobiographical 2014 novel by Miriam Toews, “All My Puny Sorrows” is about two sisters in crisis, one of whom doesn't want to live anymore. Writer-director Michael McGowan keeps this material singing by the weight of his skilled performers, but there’s such a sharp, mordant wit to the writing that's unexpected and keeps the film from being a hopeless slog.

Having grown up in a Mennonite community in Canada, sisters Yolandi “Yoli” (Alison Pill) and Elfrieda “Elf” Von Riesen (Sarah Gadon) have gotten out of dodge. Yoli is now a novelist, struggling to sign divorce papers and still mothering her 16-year-old daughter. Elf tours the world as a renowned concert pianist, and she’s seemingly happily married, until she tries ending her life for the second time. (In the opening scene and other flashbacks, we see Yoli and Elf’s father, played by Donal Logue, standing in the middle of the train tracks, so we know Elf has inherited some depression). Once Yoli gets the news, she drops the writing of her new book and flies into her hometown to see Elf in the hospital. Yoli hopes she can convince her sister that her life is worth living, but Eli wants Yoli to take her to Switzerland where assisted suicide is legal.

It doesn’t take long to realize that “All My Puny Sorrows” is a literary adaptation, complete with voice-over narration and quotes from poems. In that writerly way, these characters speak in a very specific, often florid way, but in context, that brand of dialogue in these characters’ mouths makes total sense. Fellow Canadian performers Alison Pill and Sarah Gadon do sell the often literary and highfalutin dialogue, and the emotions feel real and brittle. Pill is particularly outstanding, making Yoli feel fully formed, and Gadon does her absolute best, adding more nuance and insight into Elf than what the script probably gave her. Mare Winningham puts in lovely work as their mother, who is concerned and loving with a sense of humor rather than a nag who catastrophizes everything. Mimi Kuzyk also makes an impression as the girls’ Aunt Tina.

Life can be solemn, hard, and frustrating in “All My Puny Sorrows,” but a wry sense of humor is always intact to leaven the darkness and disappointments. With that said, director McGowan strikes a pretty deft balance without being too glib or too melodramatic, even if some of the dialogue still feels slightly overwritten when spoken aloud on-screen. Nevertheless, this is emotionally piercing stuff, elevating what could have been a tepid Drama About Life with first-rate performances. There’s nothing puny about them.

Grade: B -

Momentum Pictures is releasing “All My Puny Sorrows” (103 min.) on demand and digital on May 3, 2022.