Against a wide, white sky, with snow sprinkled across the ground, a man stands near the railroad tracks. He watches the train approach, takes off his glasses, sets them down gently on the ground, and steps in front of the oncoming locomotive. “What is a life?” a young woman asks in voice-over. “How long is it supposed to last?”
So begins Michael McGowan’s adaptation of Miriam Toews’s “All My Puny Sorrows,” and as you might surmise from that opening, it’s not exactly a mirth-fest. In fairly short order, we discover more about both figures in that opening; the man is Jake (Donal Logue), a family man who committed suicide decades ago, and the woman is Yoli (Alison Pill), one of his daughters.
She was a teenager when he took his own life; now, she’s a novelist, going through one of those periods where everything in her life seems to be collapsing. She’s in the last stages of a divorce, and though she instigated it, she’s now dragging her feet. The casual sexual encounters of her single life are comically unsatisfying. Her teenage daughter (Amybeth McNulty) is growing distant. And her sister, Elf (Sarah Gadon), a concert pianist, is going through a crisis of her own; we see her performing, to rapturous applause, only to break down in uncontrollable sobs just afterward. She then tries to kill herself, which brings Yoli back home to help her family through this crisis — to convince her sister that her life is worth living, and to quietly attempt to believe the same thing herself.
So “All My Puny Sorrows” is that old standby, the indie drama of family trauma, where snowfalls and characters fill frames artfully, and ghosts of the pasts return to haunt the present. These were pretty popular back in the ‘90s when films with titles like “The Myth of Fingerprints” and “Home for the Holidays” and various Ed Burns efforts let semi-big stars make a play for indie credibility by de-glamming and emoting wildly. But most were pretty thin affairs, quiet rebukes to the Anna Karenina principle; most of these families seem unhappy in pretty similar ways.
As is so often the case, this family is one where tragedies repeat themselves, echoing loudly in later generations. This is not the first time Elf has tried to kill herself, and she makes it clear that it won’t be the last; in fact, she wants her sister to accompany her to Switzerland and take her to an assisted suicide clinic. “I don’t want to die alone,” Elf explains.
“I don’t want you to die at all,” Yoli replies. That conflict is the real heart of the picture, and the best scenes center on it; the nature of the drama may be familiar, and the dialogue may be hackwork (“I had to be perfect so you could fuck up,” that kind of thing). Still, these two actors are so gifted, so compelling, that they transcend the clichés. Pill, often the best thing in forgettable films and television shows, is particularly good, crafting a characterization that’s rich and nuanced; she has a wonderful way of throwing off the end of a line as if she knows she can get the laugh and doesn’t even want it. Her dramatic beats are no less affecting, particularly a straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back breakdown scene that’s about as raw and real as these things get onscreen. She and Gadon are credible as a family – they look enough alike, and they approach their scenes with a similarly dry wit and guarded emotions – and their scenes are electric. When they snap “I hate you” and “I hate you too,” you can tell that they both mean it, and they both don’t.
But the rest of the movie doesn’t quite measure up. As their mother, Mare Winningham is so good (as she always has been) that she can inject life and experience into a thinly written role like this one. Martin Roach, as Elf’s hospital psychiatrist, similarly strains to make a half-written role feel complete. A relationship with a salty aunt adds some welcome flavor early on, but she’s all but written out midway through. The final revelations, and intimacy of the closing scenes, help smooth over those rough patches. But one can’t help coming away with the feeling that if the intelligence and originality of “All My Puny Sorrows” matched its earnestness, they could’ve really had something here. [B-]