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All in the Family


All My Puny Sorrows (2021)

Movies about death are often the most vibrantly alive. How’s that for irony? A very early sequence in the wonderful “All My Puny Sorrows” shows a man standing in a railway crossing, working himself up to step into the path of an oncoming train. As the sirens blare and the barriers drop, he takes off his glasses and sets them neatly onto the ground. Is it so as not to make a mess? Or is it because it’s easier to go to your death if you can’t exactly see what’s coming? These are just some of the questions this somber, joyous, intellectual movie grapples with. But what makes it a joy to watch despite the heavy subject matter is how much love saturates the story – love which can survive the most permanent separation.

The Von Reisens are the kind of family that when Elf (Sarah Gadon) quotes a poem in her suicide note, her mother Lottie (Mare Winningham, doing unshowily excellent work as always), not only recognizes it but can recite it by heart. In her first visit to her older sister in the hospital, Yoli (Alison Pill) half-seriously complains about how many other people were mentioned in the suicide note ahead of her. They were a family of four: father Jake (Donal Logue), whose suicide decades ago is the one established at the start. Mother Lottie, who quilts, and as the final survivor of her 13 siblings has earned her forthrightness about emotional and physical realities. Yoli (for Yolandi), who had a daughter, Nora (Amybeth McNulty), instead of going to college and is in the tail stages of an exhausting divorce. And Elf (for Elfreida), a famous and renowned pianist who tours internationally with her playing. Yoli is just about scraping a living as a freelance writer and novelist, Nora is a clever and trustworthy teenager, Lottie is doing fine, and Elf’s happy marriage, extraordinary talent and wonderful career make absolutely no difference to how badly she wants to die.

Fortunately Yoli’s life is such a mess she can instantly leave Nora capably in charge at home to spend her time at Elf’s bedside, doing everything she can think of to draw her sister out of the shadow of death. Back in childhood – and shown in flashbacks that editors Orlee Buium and Michelle Szemberg seamlessly knit into the current plot – the family were devout Mennonites until the church elders got upset that Elf wanted to study music in college. The family walked out of their faith and into the library without looking back, except that’s when things started to fall apart. Their history is a not a metaphor. Instead it’s a demonstration of how love and art makes the daily struggle worthwhile. Well, not for everyone, and not all the time. But for whether or not love and art is enough is the only question.

Ms. Pill and Ms. Gadon are perfectly cast as sisters – one lithe and elegant, the other with a mall haircut and embarrassing tattoos, but somehow a matching pair – whose bickering covers a bottomless mutual admiration society. They can scrape at each other because they know their love is strong enough to withstand it. Writer-director Michael McGowan, who adapted the beloved novel by Miriam Toews, has brought a respect for intelligence rarely seen on screen to vivid life. These are devoutly religious small-town Canadians who have read all the classics and can discuss Victorian poetry or modern literature the way other people swap casserole recipes. Elf has climbed incredibly high, but not unimaginably, and the others are nothing but fiercely proud of her. Lottie’s stoicism is the perfect counterpoint to Yoli’s tantrums as they both strive to combat Elf’s suffering with plans for an upcoming concert tour. If love can’t save her, maybe art will. And if love can’t save us, maybe intelligent, beautiful movies like this one can.


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