Miriam Toews’ 2014 novel “All My Puny Sorrows” thrives on the kind of fraught tonal whiplash that comes with the most intimate of relationships to one’s subject. Inspired by the suicide of the author’s sister, the book is a veiled grief memoir that veers wildly between plangent, poetic despair, plainspoken journaling and blunt, cutting humor — a spectrum mirroring the variable stages of grief itself. We can risk brutality and bad taste in the name of honesty when telling our own stories; Michael McGowan’s adaptation of “All My Puny Sorrows,” on the other hand, approaches its with a respectful timidity that honors Toews’ words, but never quite animates them.
On screen, then, “All My Puny Sorrows” is affecting, as any reasonably faithful adaptation of the novel could hardly fail to be. As a portrait of sisterly trust, obligation and estrangement, and the difficulty of carrying familial dependencies into adulthood and beyond, the film is measured and thoughtful, lifted by performances of characteristic sensitivity by Alison Pill and Sarah Gadon — as two women who, depending on the day, either understand each other all too well or don’t know each other at all.
But it’s also weighed down by a heavy dourness that doesn’t mark the novel. Burdened by its duty of care to a fragile text, the film preserves too much of it wholesale, its writing taking on a literary artificiality that doesn’t quite match Toews’ elegant candor, even when the phrasing remains the same. This is a film where characters speak in articulate, cannily observed truths that nonetheless don’t feel entirely true to life: “One of us had to show some empathy to Dad and his acres of existential sadness,” says one sister, in supposed anger, during an argument. Elsewhere, she complains about someone having a “a low-grade understanding of despair”: The film’s understanding of such is nothing if not high-grade at all times, but you do occasionally wish for cruder, messier interjections.
Directing his first feature since 2012’s well-regarded older-age romance “Still Mine,” McGowan opens on a typically restrained scene of horror, as middle-aged, anxious-faced Jake (Donal Logue) quietly bides his time by a rural rail crossing, before calmly stepping in front of an oncoming train. Shifting forward in time, we gather that he was the father of struggling author Yolandi (Pill) and celebrated concert pianist Elfriede (Gadon), and that his fatal unhappiness has proven hereditary. We meet Toronto-based Yolandi in the throes of creative frustration and the immediate aftermath of a failed marriage; Elfriede, meanwhile, has recently attempted suicide, despite the professional acclaim and romantic stability that eludes her sister.
In response to this crisis, Yolandi returns to the family nest in Winnipeg, where she attempts to talk the hospitalized Elfriede back into living, while strengthening bonds with their much-wounded mother Lottie — wonderfully played by Mare Winningham as a woman jaded by misfortune, balancing bright good humor against the darker pull of fatalism. The human stakes couldn’t be higher even as the drama simmers at a low, consistent temperature: Unyielding if not unsympathetic to her sister’s plea for a renewed lease on life, Elfriede instead begs her to accompany her to an assisted dying clinic in Switzerland. Where many films would use this as a springboard for a tedious moral treatise on a hot-button issue, “All My Puny Sorrows” keeps the focus commendably and non-judgmentally personal.
If only it felt a little more vividly inhabited. Guiding proceedings with an unnecessary, overtly novelistic voiceover that the film abandons for long stretches at a time, Yolandi feels less like a flawed, completely incomplete human being than one of her own unfinished characters, delivering passages of emotively worded feeling while hiding her heart from the viewer. Hot, archly lacerating exchanges with her own teenage daughter Nora (Amybeth McNulty, excellent) are welcome but too infrequent; wordless flashbacks to the girls’ repressive, evidently formative Mennonite upbringing are altogether too vague, skimping on telling sociocultural detail.
“All My Puny Sorrows” fills in its characters’ blanks with poetic verbiage, some its own and some some repurposed: Among a surfeit of literary quotations and namedrops, the title is lifted from a Coleridge poem, and beautifully incorporated it is too. Yet the sporadic, essential ugliness of its source material is little in evidence. Toews’ more caustic, tortured wit hasn’t made it to an adaptation that, down to its muted gray-on-gray lensing and pretty, maudlin piano-based score, prizes a soft touch over a gut-punch.
“All My Puny Sorrows” is available on demand and digital now.