Ever since their father’s suicide in their youth, sisters Yoli (Alison Pill) and Elf (Sarah Gadon) have wrestled with tragedy. Now adults, All My Puny Sorrows follows the two women who carry their grief in different ways yet both are having difficulty coping to get through the day. Navigating a divorce and her struggling career as a writer, Yoli is getting by emotionally (but barely) while Elf is now a famous concert pianist who seems to have the world at her feet. However, neither woman find it easy to confront the emotional trauma that haunts them. After Yoli attempts to commit suicide, the family is forced to dig up their personal demons and figure out what it means to move on.
In many ways, the term ‘puny’ is an understatement for the sorrows in this film. Instead, Sorrows is very much a piece where the weight of death and sadness is simply too much to bear. This is a family of tragic figures who grip a torch of mental health that is being passed along within this family. Broken by the death of their father ‘by his own hand’ [though they hate that term], they carry the weight of his suicide with them into adulthood. Now, Elf may seem like the picture of success yet cannot bear to make it to the next day. While Yoli may be more emotionally stable, she too is struggling to get by, primarily financially.
Tightly written in a way that pays homage to classic tragic authors, the language in this film is often framed poetically. With constant literary references, Sorrows deep dives into the stories of authors who used their skills to express their pain so beautifully in the past. Though the content is extremely heavy, Sorrows benefits from solid performances from its stars. Allison Pill does a wonderful job leading the cast as a woman struggling and fighting to survive but ultimately forced to release all expectations of life. At the same time, Gadon (who may be one of Canada’s finest actresses right now) continues to turn in grounded performances that feel present with her characters.
Perhaps to its credit, Sorrows offers few answers of hope for those battling mental health issues, depression and suicide. Set against the cold winter, this too is a film which focuses on the winter of the souls of its characters. Whereas many other films attempt to explain away the reasons (and solutions) to issues of depression, Sorrows instead highlights the toxic ways that culture has tried to placate these feelings in the past. For example, in one particularly interesting scene, a pastor shows up to Elf‘s room and attempts to shame her into forgiveness and hope. Instead of listening to Elf’s pain or taking on a posture of humility, he shows a shocking level of insensitivity in the moment and utilizes shame in order to ‘provide help’. In response, she lashes out at him and takes off her clothes. The shock of the moment forces him out of the room in fear, leaving her alone in her suffering. Afterwards, Yoli and her mom discuss Elf’s story, recognizing the perils of shame and the way that we carry it. While this is hardly the most uplifting of moments, it also shows the cold insensitivity of a culture that too frequently stands on the outside, unwilling to acknowledge the depth of pain in others.
However, it’s worth noting that this also means that hope within this world also feels more elusive. As answers become less clear, so too does the pit of suffering feel more… inescapable. By the end, Sorrows seems to lean into hope as the practices of letting go yet finds it difficult to offer ways by which to do so. While it’s appreciated that the challenges of mental health are taken so seriously, so too does the film bear a heavy weight on the viewer’s soul as well.
In many ways, the title All My Puny Sorrows feels immensely ironic as these burdens are far from small for its characters. There is a heaviness to this film that is both painful and poetic as its characters sit within their struggles, seeking some form of light. Even so, due to a smartly written script and engaging performances, the film manages to remain compelling, even when its sadness can be overwhelming.
All My Puny Sorrows premiered at TIFF ’21 on Saturday, September 11th, 2021.