TIFF: All My Puny Sorrows clings to its source material to its significant detriment

All My Puny Sorrows

Michael McGowan’s film, adapted from the novel of the same name, undermines strong performances by clinging too tightly to its source material.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.)

Content Note: All My Puny Sorrows deals heavily with suicide.

Adapting a novel to a screenplay isn’t a mechanical copy and paste process, but you wouldn’t know that watching All My Puny Sorrows. Just a smidge less maudlin than a stereotypical Hallmark movie, Michael McGowan’s adaptation of Miriam Toews’s 2014 novel is a prime example of literary and cinematic wordage not being plug-and-play interchangeable. Literature and cinema use different tools to tell their stories. Outright quoting language verbatim from a book can lead to a dragging, overly florid film. Sadly, this is the case for All My Puny Sorrows.

Toews’ story is heartrending, inspired by her own emotional struggles and her sister’s death by suicide. Yoli (Alison Pill) and her sister Elfrieda, also called Elf, (Sarah Gadon) are part of a Mennonite family in Canada. Their clan is more liberal compared to the rest of their community, and making for strained relations with their religious brethren.

Yoli lives a life that some in her community view as completely beyond the pale. She’s a writer with an unsteady paycheck, two failed marriages, and children from both. Elfrieda, by contrast, is a married, successful piano player. But despite her outward success, Elfrieda struggles with severe depression and suicidal ideations. Yoli, for all her own issues, makes keeping her sister alive her mission.

All My Puny Sorrows tries to be its source novel, instead of adapating it, and thanks to that brute force approach, the resulting picture is decidedly poor.

While All My Puny Sorrows‘ story is straightforward and could be compelling on film if translated well, McGowan’s treatment of the material lacks artistry. Both the film and its characters feel like a mannered visual accompaniment to the novel. Its dialogue is long, unwieldy, and full of hollowly perfect rebuttals and sentences. In particular, Yoli’s many proclamations play like they were pulled directly from the page with no thought as to how they’d work on screen.

In addition to its slipshod work translating its source material to the screen, All My Puny Sorrows relies on well-worn shortcuts to tearjerking. Slow-motion is overused. The score is cloying. The flashbacks are constant. There is value to be found in letting your actors—and All My Puny Sorrows‘ ensemble is a talented crew—work with the script, to create natural conversation. There is value to be found in using the tools of cinema to tell a story adapted from literature in a new way. All My Puny Sorrows tries to be its source novel, instead of adapting it, and thanks to that brute force approach, the resulting picture is decidedly poor.

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