Magic bond Canadian actors find real connection as sisters in adaptation of Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/04/2022 (240 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
When we talk about “onscreen chemistry,” it’s often in the context of romantic leads.
But Canadian actors Alison Pill (The Newsroom) and Sarah Gadon (Alias Grace), who star as sisters in All My Puny Sorrows, writer-director Michael McGowan’s affecting adaptation of Miriam Toews’ stunning semi-autobiographical 2014 novel of the same name, have sizzle in spades. (The film has been a hit on the festival circuit, and picked up a handful of nominations and two wins at the Canadian Screen Awards on Sunday night.)
As it turns out, Gadon and Pill have known each other since they were kids in Toronto and thrilled at the chance to finally work together.
“I had a sneaking suspicion that we would work well together at this point in our lives,” Pill says via Zoom. “And it was even better in that regard than I expected or could hope for. She just makes me a better artist and creator.”
Gadon feels the same way about Pill. “I just knew that because Alison was attached to the project, I didn’t have to think twice.”
All My Puny Sorrows follows Yolandi, or Yoli (Pill) and Elfrieda, or Elf (Gadon), sisters and “enemies who love each other.” You see, Elf wants desperately to die. Yoli wants desperately for Elf to live. Yoli flies to Winnipeg to be by her sister’s side after Elf attempts to end her life.
On paper, beautiful Elf has everything: a celebrated career as a concert pianist, a husband who loves her, a beautiful home, a loving extended family. Yoli, meanwhile, is what you’d call a hot mess (or, at least, she believes she is): a scrappy single mom and novelist who is struggling to write and transports her manuscript in a plastic shopping bag.
Yoli and Elf’s father died by suicide, just like Miriam and her sister Marjorie’s father. Marjorie died by suicide 12 years later.
Toews has never papered over those facts of her life, instead turning her grief into art. All My Puny Sorrows is a story about the bond that exists between sisters, but it’s also a rebuke of the mental health care system in Canada that explodes myths about happiness, depression and family.
And it’s funny. Improbably, amazingly, laugh-out-loud funny — owing, in large part, to both Yoli and the family’s irrepressible matriarch Lottie (Mare Winningham).
“I mean, Canadians are really funny,” Gadon says. “The humour Miriam has in her book feels so Canadian to me — it’s dry, and kind of repressed, and just silly at times, and absurd. And I loved watching Alison inhabit that space. You know, she’s a really strong, dramatic actor, but she’s a really strong comedic actor as well.”
“It’s the same thing with the way Sarah embodied Elf,” Pill adds. “Nothing is one thing. Human brains want things to be binary — it’s a happy face, or a sad face, and anything in the middle is very confusing.
“And it’s like, nothing’s binary, friends. Our brains want to organize into categories, but it’s an absurd conclusion to make. I love the embrace of going, yeah, life’s tragic. And it’s f—-ing funny.”
The humour was what inspired McGowan to adapt the novel — which wasn’t easy.
“I do think that Miriam’s humour and mine sort of align that way; I don’t think I would have been interested in this if there wasn’t the humour in it,” McGowan says via Zoom.
“I tend to write fairly quickly when I get on a roll, and I’m like, ‘OK, well, I have the book, how hard is this really going to be?’ And it stumped me, I could not figure out the real estate or the math to get it into a film under two hours. I struggled for about a year with it. And I was ready to give up. I couldn’t figure it out.”
A dinner with Toews helped kick things loose for McGowan. “She was really generous to the whole process,” he says.
Gadon and Pill would agree. They, too, are longtime fans of the author, who grew up in Manitoba and is now based in Toronto. And they also spent time with Toews prior to filming, which was particularly helpful for Gadon.
“I think I was really afraid to play Elf because I know she’s inspired by Miriam’s sister, and that’s a real person,” Gadon says. “I spent some time with (Toews) before I went up to North Bay to shoot the movie, and we had this incredible time together where she was just so open and just candid about her experience… what it was like when her sister was hospitalized, and what her sister was like.
“She was just so supportive and encouraging and generous and kind, and I think after that I felt safe enough to be able to go up and shoot the movie.”
All My Puny Sorrows is set in Winnipeg and the fictitious Manitoba Mennonite community of East Village, but was shot in North Bay, Ont. Manitoba has played many other locations in films; it’s not so often that somewhere else has to double as Manitoba.
“It would have been so much easier just to shoot it in Winnipeg,” McGowan says. “There’s financial reasons, there’s COVID reasons, but we definitely didn’t want to take that aspect away.” (Indeed, there’s a certain Prairie chill that North Bay was able to deliver on.)
While writing the adaptation was a years-long process, shooting, meanwhile, was confined to a tight three weeks.
“Alison insisted, in the best possible way, on rehearsing it,” McGowan says. “We had 20 days to shoot it, we had no time. And so, in prep, we sort of found time to go through, especially tracking the hospital scenes throughout the film, and really doing it in a way where we had the luxury of challenging everything that was written — are we repeating ourselves? Is it progressing? All these kinds of things that we might have discovered on the day on set that we we’d already worked through. That was sort of a revelation for me.”
Both actors hope that the film, in its frankness and empathy around its subject matter, inspires more candid conversations around mental health and suicide, which are still poorly understood.
“Speaking about something you know so little about with anything but frankness just adds another level of impenetrability to an already impenetrable fortress of the brain and the mind,” Pill says. “So, heck, if we have the little bit of vocabulary that we have, let’s use it to talk about it, because we know at least that helps.”
“And also, what’s happening to the family surrounding this person, who are advocating for this person inside of institutions? What’s that like for them?” Gadon adds. “Elf had a family advocating for her, but there are also so many other stories where that’s not the case. I think it’s really important to be exploring these themes in film and and seeing and normalizing them.”
All My Puny Sorrows opens in Winnipeg on Friday, April 22.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.