All My Puny Sorrows



All my little sorrows

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“I too had a sister, an only sister –
She loved me tenderly and I adored her;
It was to her that I poured all my little sorrows.”

There are a lot of old and complicated family dynamics at play here: Elf was the perfect sister, Yoli the rebel who got pregnant at seventeen, and so on. Elf’s husband, Nic (Aly Mawji), seems supportive, but also quite unhelpful, and Elf’s psychiatrist is bent on getting her out of the hospital. Yoli begs him not to.

The film opens with Donal Logue standing on a train track, staring at an approaching train, awaiting his own death, a death he chose. It’s an image McGowan returns to again and again. “All My Puny Sorrows” is woven from collage-like fragments of this moment and others, showing the past, the two child sisters, glimpses of their strong bond, the toys they played with, the woods in which they wandered, smiled at them. These collages create an associative and subjective atmosphere, placing us inside Yoli’s head, where memories encroach on the present. Yoli’s voiceover is used so inconsistently that it never materializes into an actual choice. The film is clearly told from his point of view, but the voiceover adds almost no idea, and for long sections it disappears completely.

Compare to a movie like “Night, Mother”, which has a similar theme: a mother tries to stop her daughter from committing suicide. In this film, Anne Bancroft’s desperate plea and Sissy Spacek’s practical certainty make for an extremely unnerving watch. You hope that the mother will succeed in convincing the daughter to stay. But the girl seems so determined that she feels it’s too late. She’s already gone, really, she just needs to work out a few things. Playing in real time, “‘night, Mother” is devastating. “All My Puny Sorrows” has all the elements to pack a devastating punch, but there’s not really a sense of urgency. It’s as if people are marking time, as if the end has already been determined, it’s just a matter of resigning oneself to the inevitable.

All three actresses are wonderful, especially Pill, who inhabits Yoli’s tattered insecurities with comfort and familiarity (bringing some welcome humor to this rather dark affair). Yoli feels very real. The scenes with her daughter Nora (Amybeth McNulty) are some of the best in the film, quiet and insightful. Gadon is a wonderful actress, although here she is mostly lying in a hospital bed, staring vaguely and sadly into the distance. There are times when the heat rises under the characters – when Yoli tells Elf how much she’s going to miss her, for example – but it’s never enough. The temperature remains lukewarm.

Now available on digital platforms.

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