Pill and Gadon get their sad on in the film version of Miriam Toews’ bestseller
Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo | April 7, 2022
All My Puny Sorrows
Opens Friday 22
A Canadian film starring two in-demand local figures is a rarity. The fact both leads are actresses in their thirties makes the project unusual. Make the source material and most of the cast and crew local, and you have a straight-up unicorn.
Meet All My Puny Sorrows, based on Miriam Toews semi-autobiographical 2014 Giller Prize finalist. Alison Pill and Sarah Gadon star as the Von Riesen sisters. It’s a casting coup; it’s also easy to imagine them as siblings.
The film, a no-holds-barred drama about depression (see sidebar), made the festival rounds last year and has already been recognized by the Canadian Screen Awards and the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. It took writer/director Michael McGowan (One Week) six years to get the project off the ground. While Gadon had been intermittently involved at different stages (“independent film projects come in and out of your orbit”), Pill joined at the last minute, mid-pandemic in 2020. She describes it as “an easy decision and a hard logistical choice”.
Pill and Gadon have known each other since they were children. So much so, Sorrows isn’t even the first movie they’ve co-led. In 2003, still in their teens, they starred in Fast Food High, a teen comedy that morphs into a pro-union drama midway through. Pill plays the popular girl-turned-Norma Rae and Gadon, the best friend who chooses to get ahead rather than join her pal’s crusade. The outcome was less than stellar but the leads’ potential was unmistakeable.
Since then, both have moved to bigger and better things: Sarah Gadon has worked with David Cronenberg, Xavier Dolan and Denis Villeneuve and starred in the critically acclaimed miniseries Alias Grace and 11.22.63. Alison Pill has popped up in films by the Coens, Bong Joon Ho and, memorably, Edgar Wright (“WE’RE SEX BOB-OMB”), and has an uncanny knack for showing up in my favourite TV shows (The Newsroom, In Treatment, Devs, Them).
I had the opportunity to Zoom with them both and talk Sorrows. Gadon graced these pages eight years ago while promoting Enemy. After several close calls, we finally got to talk to Pill, still rocking her Star Trek: Picard hairdo.
Are you, Alison, critical of the way your character, Yoli, deals with Elf’s depression?
ALISON PILL: The beauty of All My Puny Sorrows is the level of empathy and lack of judgement throughout. The characters’ decisions are logical, and most couldn’t be made any differently or better. I don’t judge Yoli at all: she loves her sister and tries to support her while battling institutional and medical ideas about mental illness and the worldview of what suicidal people are like. It’s what Miriam has done with her work and in her own life. If you come from a place of love, judgement doesn’t have a spot in the room.
Elf is in a very dark place. As an actor, how did you get yourself there and then out at the end of the day?
SARAH GADON: It’s certainly something I’m constantly examining. During prep and on set I try to become a channel through which emotions flow. By approaching work like this I’m able to go home and be present, while I may feel a bit of emotional hangover. When I was younger, I thought I had to live inside of that psyche to achieve an authentic portrayal.
You mentioned Miriam Toews was accessible to you when you were building the character. Was there an insight you found particularly helpful?
SG: Looking back in our conversation, the thing that really stuck out to me was how aware Elf was of what was happening to her. Her advocating for herself to die was sad, but also full of conviction.
The way Elf acts on her suicidal ideation feels particularly violent. Do you see a message in the way she acts on it?
AP: I think so. There’s a desperation to reach this goal. It’s something Miriam’s book quietly advocates: is it humane to let people suffer to the point they end their lives like this, or is it more humane to help them die with dignity, with more love and control in it? That’s the question that comes up when you read the novel and — I hope — when you watch the film.
Is there a role of yours you think didn’t receive the recognition it deserved? Off the top of my head, Alison, I thought your character in Them was perfectly hissable and got lost in the shuffle.
AP: I’ve given up imagining people’s reception of whatever I’m doing. It’s truly pointless. But in terms of a project I wish people watched more than they did, that would be Devs, the Alex Garland miniseries I was part of. So few high-concept shows nail the landing and Devs did.
SG: So many people talk to me about Enemy. It feels like it has become a cult classic. I learned a long time ago that moments of extreme outward success in the industry are often the times when I feel the most empty and disconnected. This is a very humbling profession: you can have an amazing job, super fulfilling, critically acclaimed even, but then you’re always back to square one, wondering how you can get that again.
AP: The older you get, the more you just have to accept the satisfaction of knowing you did what you set out to do.
SG: You’re so damn lucky if you even get to work. That’s the win.
The Daffodils of Deprivation
A staple in contemporary Canadian literature, “All My Puny Sorrows” combines heavy drama with darkly comedic undertones without undermining the subject. The novel’s narrator, Yoli, is a screw-up, someone who has squandered her potential by making poor personal choices. By contrast, her sister, Elf (short for Elfrieda) is a renowned concert pianist, happily married and loved by all.
Elf, however, has inherited her father’s crippling depression and shortly before a world tour, she tries to kill herself. For the second time. Stuck in the darkest of places, Elf asks Yoli to help her get to Switzerland, where she can die by euthanasia. A conflicted Yoli must decide whether to honour her sister’s wishes or try to rescue her from the clutches of depression.
The book’s approach to the illness is painfully realistic: there’s no easy solution and medication only works if the patient wants to get better. Sometimes they don’t.
The film is respectful of the text to the extreme. While some aspects of the story have been streamlined, long paragraphs straight from the book make their way into the movie. Rather than feel artificial or pretentious, Alison Pill believes it suits the characters. “We’re inhabiting people who can legitimately pull a Philip Larkin poem out in the middle of the day. It’s the shared language of the family,” she says.
The dark humour can get lost in translation at times but as a straightforward drama, All My Puny Sorrows doesn’t go for the easy tear. Sarah Gadon explains it better: “In talking to Miriam about her sister before we went to camera, one of the things that struck me is that Elf, while struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts, remains creative, intelligent and funny. My challenge was showing all of those things and not just the idea of what someone who’s depressed looks like.”