Alison Pill was looking to take a break with her family during the pandemic last year when director Michael McGowan offered a script she simply couldn’t turn down.
The director and writer had spent the previous year painstakingly adapting Miriam Toews’ best-selling novel, All My Puny Sorrows.
Screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival’s prestigious Special Presentation selection, All My Puny Sorrows unexpectedly infuses wry humour into this heart-wrenching story of two sisters: one a gifted pianist (Sarah Gadon) obsessed with ending her life, the other a struggling writer (Pill) who, in wrestling with this decision, makes profound discoveries about herself.
“Even though I was mad at Mike for interfering with my plans, I’m very happy that my life was upset because this is such a profound story,” says Pill, 35, whose film roles include Milk, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Midnight in Paris and Vice, while on the small screen she is best known for her roles in In Treatment, The Newsroom, American Horror Story: Cult, and Star Trek: Picard.
Pill felt compelled to be a part of this story, which seeks to remove some of the taboo surrounding depression and suicide.
“I think the discussion of it is far more open now in a really helpful way. My mum’s family has a history of mental illness and depression,” reveals the Canadian former child actress.
“But there was a lot of ‘looking away’ from suicidal depression and not being able to even allow it to exist; to criminalise it; to want to punish it because it goes against what we think the laws of nature should be.
“What is interesting about this movie is its compassion and a lack of blame. I think facing anything with curiosity instead of judgement is the better way to go always. And I hope this movie – it’s an autobiographical novel that Miriam wrote about her and her sister, so it’s a lived experience for her, of her having to get to a place of acceptance and find peace with the way her sister operated in the world,” says Pill, referring to how her character of Yoli even tries to help when her sister, Elf, begs her to take her to a clinic in Switzerland where she can end her life.
“It’s important to be able to look at these things as real options instead of saying, ‘This person is morally wrong’. I think that’s just an unhelpful way to frame it and as painful as this all is, and as painful as really bad depression is, it is something that we must look at and not ignore and shove out of the way. These questions of existence are important and so I hope this movie fosters more discussion,” she says.
Likewise, Mare Winningham, who plays the sisters’ mum, hopes this film provides greater understanding of depression, in particular with its themes of generational suicide. But despite the story’s themes, Winningham believes All My Puny Sorrows to be a story of survival.
“While I hope that – in the face of two choices, life and death; choose life! – but I think the movie is really about those that survived. I think that when you’re talking about disease or depression or a will to die, for most people, you want that to be something that can be corrected because it seems anti-life, but the film also goes deeply into what are our obligations as survivors – for the mother or the sister? It works in the way that it continues to live after the curtain closes,” she says.
Pill’s Yoli is mother of a teenage girl, an interesting aspect for the actress who has a five year old daughter with director/actor husband Joshua Leonard.
“This role, in some ways, was a glimpse into the future, but I also really appreciated Miriam’s relationship with her kids. The assumptions we make about young mums and their ability to mother or whatever, Miriam will destroy any of those assumptions pretty darn quick and is this ferociously mum-ing person who is also a ferociously talented writer and her balance of those things I find really inspiring.
“So, I hope that when my daughter is that age that we have even remotely as functional and funny a relationship,” she says.
While Toews’ semi-autobiographical novel was considered by many to be unadaptable to the screen, McGowan was confident he could tackle it, optioning the rights, and then spending an entire year adapting it.
“It was such tricky ground to navigate, and I think what the film really wrestles with this idea of trying to ‘save someone’ and then also respect this inevitability of what the person that wants to die is feeling and the legalisation and the morality around it. I think it is just an impossible question to arrive at an answer for,” he says.
If suicide isn’t the most uplifting of themes, then McGowan’s adaptation of All My Puny Sorrows manages to do just that. “I think that’s what is so profoundly sad and, at the same time, uplifting and interesting and messed-up. I think what Sarah (Gadon), Alison and Mare brought to the film is that deep humanity and that exploration and what Miriam talked about as a lived experience. We didn’t used to talk about suicide and mental health years ago, although today it’s so much more front and centre,” argues the director whose films include award-winning features Still Mine and One Week.