All My Puny Sorrows is the first of Canadian novelist Miriam Toews’ works to find its way into the theaters as a feature film. Like all Toews’ (pronounced ‘Taves’ rhyming with ‘faves’) books, this novel written in 2014 draws heavily on her childhood and life experiences. Born into a Mennonite community in southern Manitoba, Toews and her sister were raised by parents who encouraged them to ask questions and follow their passions. Toews’ father, a teacher in their small town, died by suicide when Toews was 32 years old. Blurring the lines between memoir and fiction, this life-changing event became the backdrop for much of her writing. Then in 2010, Toews’ sister took her life. All My Puny Sorrows is based on Toews’ relationship with her sister and her mother through this time
For anyone who has read the novel, the movie holds no surprises. Elf (Sarah Gadon), the elder sister, is hospitalized again after another suicide attempt. Her younger sister, Yoli (Alison Pill), whose own life is unraveling, flies in from Vancouver to provide support to their mother Tini (Mimi Kuzyk). Yoli, a writer, pleads with her sister to consider all the good gifts of her life: a husband, a beautiful home, and a very successful career as a pianist. The sisters have biting words for each other as they process their own intense feelings of shame and failure. Through it all their mother is stalwart, keeping things together for her daughters as she has all her life. Yoli recalls the words of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “I had … an only sister and … to her I pour’d all my puny sorrows.”
The movie is sparse, with no wasted scenes or dialogue. The viewer is always given just enough to fill out the story. Through it all, the church, and its expectations hover at the edges of this family’s story. In her storytelling Toews leans into the disappointment in the church she left long ago but cannot shake free.
Emmy Award-winner and Academy Award-nominee Mare Winningham also stars.
Recommended for viewers who value a finely acted and crafted film that raises many questions while honoring the resilience of family love and support. (Rated R for language and references to sex and suicide. Stream on Hulu and Amazon Prime)