We’re meant to move on.
What we feel often confuses what we know. To Yoli (Alison Pill), living in the shadow of her perfect sister Elf (Sarah Gadon) was a frustrating existence that seemingly guaranteed her own rocky path continued into adulthood. She had a daughter at eighteen (Amybeth McNulty‘s Nora), left her husband after sixteen years despite being the one who refuses to sign the divorce papers, and sees her writing career as fledgling at best. Elf, on the other hand, is now an internationally renowned concert pianist with a beautiful house, loving husband (Aly Mawji‘s Nic), and a combative nature that allows her to go toe-to-toe with anyone who dares try. Yoli considers those things perfect solely because of their appearance. She’ll soon discover, however, that appearances mean nothing.
Author Miriam Toews drew heavily on her own sister’s suicide when writing her sixth novel All My Puny Sorrows and writer/director Michael McGowan ensures that subject matter arrives straight away in his adaptation. It’s a scene depicting Yoli and Elf’s father Jake (Donal Logue) standing by train tracks, checking his watch for the time. He purposefully removes his glasses, sets them down, and walks straight-backed into the path of the oncoming locomotive. We can only assume via a cut to the sisters talking on the phone that they’ve had some space to grieve the incident. They’re at work and embracing the so-called normalcy of their lives despite its tragedy and yet those appearances prove deceiving too. His death is not our main focus. It’s Elf’s attempt.
The questions run through Yoli’s head fast. How could Elf want to die with everything she has? How could she do that to her and their mother (Mare Winningham‘s Lottie) after already enduring Jake’s suicide? Should she have seen the signs? Can she save her now? The helplessness, anger, and sorrow mix until every visit leads to a screaming match with nowhere to go. Because what does “If you love me, you’d let me die” mean? Yoli could just as easily reply by saying “If you love me, you’d live” and yet the irony’s attempt to force a stalemated truce would only make Elf more frustrated. So they instead quote poetry, remember the past, and fight to reckon with the truth that this wasn’t a cry for help.
This dialogue never tries to unearth concrete answers, though. Toews experienced the pain of what this trauma entails and surely realized before writing that the real reasons cannot be quantified. Maybe Elf was depressed and off her medication or maybe her decision was made with a clear, logical mind that weighed the pros of staying alive versus the cons. The same goes for Jake. He had a loving family, fought hard to open a library in their insular Mennonite community, and was a God-fearing man. Yet he walked onto those tracks without hesitation. He made his choice and those who survived him had to make theirs in the aftermath. As Lottie tells Yoli, sometimes the pain of letting grief go hurts more than the grief itself.
Of course it does. To let it go means to choose the future in a way that allows the anger of the present to fade away and recenter the past. Jake didn’t do what he did to hurt them. One could say it had nothing to do with them at all. Elf too. She didn’t plan things out to ensure she’d be alone long enough to bleed out so her family could suffer even more by saving her against her will. Yoli speaks about having patience to die like everyone else and yet people try to say suicide is selfish. It’s all excuses. Love, work, aspirations—they’re supposed to push you through and yet none of them can fill that hole inside. That’s solely up to you.
One could say the film is less about what Elf will do than what Yoli will learn on her impromptu trek down memory lane. She’ll run into an old classmate to realize visible sadness is fleeting. She’ll recall the time their church came to voice their displeasure with Elf going to college for music only to meet the joined defiance her sister and mother showed to allow themselves the power to control their lives. She even sees the excitement on her father’s face when he came home from Pierre Trudeau’s funeral and regaled them with a story of how he made a friend who invited him to a party at a mansion—the juxtaposition of him being there proof that so much of what we see is inconsequential.
Money doesn’t buy happiness. Depression doesn’t guarantee sadness. Put Yoli and Elf side-by-side and you’d probably say the wrong one was suicidal and it’s that complexity that we too often forget. Those who follow through are often the ones who hid it because their pain went deeper than superficial frustrations. For Yoli to witness Elf’s determined death wish first-hand is to therefore look inside and realize the things she believes make her a failure are nothing by comparison. Her divorce is a beginning towards something new and better. Her unsuccessful attempts to make her novel into a ham-fisted adventure expose the road towards making it what it needs to be about instead—them. How they lived with all their might and inevitably died with it too.
While Gadon’s performance is a big part of the whole being that her resolve is the cause of everyone’s current strife, this is mainly the grievers’ show (although Logue is wonderfully sweet as their unassuming patriarch). Winningham steals every scene she’s in with a combination of devastating anguish and confident poise to allow the rest room to fall apart themselves. And Pill guides us through every step as the lead, author surrogate, and narrator. She provides a welcome dose of sarcasm, heartfelt desperation, and a resonant sense of understanding (even if vestiges of her anger remain close at-hand). What makes these two characters’ sadness different than Jake and Elf’s? We may never know. But that truth also does not devalue either. Our pain is real and it’s ours.
courtesy of TIFF