ALL MY PUNY SORROWS – directed by Michael McGowan – SPOILERS
Somewhere in Toronto, Yoli (Alison Pill) is trying to write a novel, and finding it difficult. What little she has written sounds a lot like Shelley Long on CHEERS, but one part of it soon becomes relevant (if not accurate). “Suffering,” she writes, “is something that is passed from one generation to the next, like flexibility, grace, or colourblindness.” Yoli’s husband calls asking her to sign the divorce papers, which is something she has been avoiding, because the message is reluctantly delivered by her daughter Nora (Amybeth McNulty). Then, after having sex with Finbar (Michael Musi) (whom she will later describe as a “grotesquely undiscerning lover”) Yoli learns that her sister Elfrieda has tried to kill herself.
When Yoli visits Elfrieda in hospital, her sister tells her: “I wanted – want – to die. This wasn’t a mistake.” Yoli replies: “No. None of this strikes me as a cry for help. There are people who want you to live, so it would seem you have enemies who love you.” Elfrieda describes her interactions with the hospital staff, saying that her doctors seem to equate intelligence with the will to live. (In truth, Elf’s intellect is subtle. Yoli remembers that, after she broke up with “that guy in Montreal” and was living alone, Elf sent her a quote from Paul Valéry, one letter each day, one word in each letter: “Breath. Dreams. Silence. Invincible calm. You will triumph.”)
But it is Yoli who makes the darkly humourous repartee between the sisters the highlight of the film, though the relevance of what she says is sometimes less-than-obvious. For instance, she says that “continents drift apart at the same rate that fingernails grow.”, and that is wrong most of the time. (Writing for Science Alert, David Neild explained when it is not wrong: “Essentially, there’s a tipping point where the connection between two continents becomes too weak to resist the forces moving in the other direction, and that’s where the action speeds up to fingernail-growing levels.”)
Yoli’s father Jake (Donal Logue), who killed himself by stepping in front of a train, is depicted in several flashbacks. In one of them, Jake is entirely unassertive about being displaced from the home he had (years earlier) built with his own hands. In another, a Mennonite elder is telling him that his fifteen-year-old daughter Elfrieda (Elf for short) should not be permitted to go to college and study music because it might give her ideas. Dad is a little bit assertive in this one. In the living room, Elf tries to drown out the conversation by playing Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G Minor loudly on the piano, while, in the kitchen, Yoli’s mother Lottie (Mare Winningham) vents her frustration on a piece of chicken, relentlessly pounding it into submission.
The mechanic tasked with repairing Lottie’s car after it breaks down (poetically, in front of a church) turns out to be Jason (Dov Tiefenbach), someone Yoli went to school with. In high school, she nicknamed the guy Sad Jason because of his obsession with a failed relationship, so it is worth noting that, according to Lottie, the primary emotion evoked by the books that Yoli writes is sadness. Jason also studied creative writing but did not graduate (hence his current occupation). The mechanic compares the writing process to the cleaning of septic tanks, and his approach to creativity is mechanical, much like the technique applied by Dr. Johns (Martin Roach), the psychiatrist treating Elfrieda. Johns dismisses Yoli’s opinions and ignores her advice, although she very likely understands her sister much better than he does.
Not quite everyone dies in this story, and more recent generations of Elfrieda’s family seem to have been spared the gloominess of the rest of the clan. During the eulogy at Aunt Tina’s funeral, an unidentified child mistakes Tina’s ashes for a toy. Also, Yoli’s daughter Nora seems to make a conscious effort at contrariness to keep her mother from sinking into the family malaise. She succeeds to some extent, but it is Elf who provides Yoli with inspiration for her latest book, which seems to end on an optimistic note. Two sisters wearing welding masks sit in a field, having just viewed a total solar eclipse their father has told them about.
YOLI: “The next one’s not supposed to be for 1500 years, or something like that.”
ELF: “Then I guess I’ll miss it,”.
YOLI: “Yeah, then I guess I will, too.”
ELF: “Maybe not. Who knows.”
Based on the largely autobiographical novel by Miram Toews ALL MY PUNY SORROWS is set (mostly) in Manitoba, and the Mennonites depicted are oppressive and uncompromising. Contrastingly, in PURE, a 2017 CBC series, Mennonites were portrayed as being much more tolerant.
Sarah Gadon is also Alyssa, a receptionist working for a corporation called “The Authority”, in Joachim Back‘s dark comedy CORNER OFFICE, a film adaptation of Swedish actor Jonas Karlsson’s novel “The Room”. Gadon described the film to Dana Gee of the Vancouver Sun as “an absurdist comedy about a man who discovers a private office in his building, and it awakens his imagination and his intellect and his life in the face of a mundane, grey, bleak reality that he is currently facing at work.” CORNER OFFICE was filmed in Vancouver, and had its premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.