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Michael McGowan, director of All My Puny Sorrows.AMPS Productions

Michael McGowan was in despair. Six years ago, the Canadian screenwriter/director was working on what should have been a dream project, adapting Miriam Toews’s award-winning 2014 novel All My Puny Sorrows, one of the most beautiful books in the Canadian canon.

It’s about the Von Riesen sisters, lapsed Mennonites, “enemies who love each other.” Elfrieda is a concert pianist suffering from crushing depression, who wants to take her own life – as her father did, 12 years earlier. Yoli is a writer, who will do anything to keep Elf alive. It’s based on Toews’s own sister and father. It hits all the big themes – love, family, grief, mental illness, hope – and all the right notes: funny, intelligent, gut-wrenching, unsentimental.

“I wanted to wrestle with ideas like, ‘What in your past stains the present?’ ” McGowan, 55, said in a phone interview. “What does your future hold because of your memories?”

He knew his film had three platinum roles for actresses (the third is Lottie, Yoli and Elf’s singular mother). It could be a jewel in his varied career, which includes the films One Week, Score: A Hockey Musical and Still Mine. And Toews had given him her blessing.

“Mike’s smart, and a great writer,” she wrote to me in an e-mail interview. “We share a sort of anti-authoritarian sensibility, a similar reaction to the b.s. and cruelty of the world, and also to its beauty, which involves comedy and compassion.”

But after a year of banging away, McGowan was stuck. At a film festival party, he met the novelist Michael Ondaatje and poured out his plight. Ondaatje’s advice: “Take Toews to dinner and tell her you can’t do it.” So McGowan did.

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Then something writerly happened. The moment he admitted defeat, a line floated into his head: “Yoli is trying to restore balance in the universe.” Somehow, the idea gave him a way in.

He finished the script in a month. This week, his movie premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival, starring Alison Pill as Yoli, Sarah Gadon as Elf and Mare Winningham as Lottie. When I saw it in August, I cried my way through three paper masks and haven’t stopped thinking about it since.

The trick of a great film adaptation is knowing what to pare away. McGowan focused his script on a series of conversations between Yoli and Elf – with early input from his friend Gadon, who reminded him that “your sibling is this witness that you have for your whole life.”

Imagine Hamlet’s soliloquies as two-handers, as Elf tries to make Yoli understand her choice, and Yoli begs Elf not to make it. Then add a palpable feeling of shared history, and a common language of family jokes and literary references.

The entire film was shot in 20 days in November and December, 2020, but the cast and crew came to chilly North Bay, Ont., two weeks early, to fulfill their COVID-19 quarantine. Pill and Gadon used the time to ask Toews specific questions – How physically affectionate are they? What would Elf’s bandages look like? – and to work on those crucial scenes.

The actresses share a lifelong connection. As child actors in Toronto, they tried out for the same roles; attended the public arts school Claude Watson, as well as Interact (Pill was two years ahead of Gadon); co-starred in three projects in the early 2000s; and kept watch on each other’s careers, as Pill became a Broadway regular, and both actresses excelled on television and in films, in projects including The Newsroom and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Pill), and Alias Grace and Indignation (Gadon).

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All My Puny Sorrows is an adaptation of Miriam Toews’s award-winning 2014 novel.AMPS Productions Inc

They also work in a similarly rigorous style.

“My personal process is intellectual before it becomes emotional,” Gadon said in a phone interview. (Her father, a psychologist, helped her parse Elf’s depression.)

“Alison and I studied theatre; we’re used to sitting down and interrogating material. We agreed that there was no other way to make this movie – we had to talk about everything, push everything. You can’t put weight behind those scenes without doing the work ahead of time.” She says with a laugh. “We were relentless.”

“Sarah was specific about the tiniest things,” McGowan said. “When Elf should have her eyes open or closed. The aversion of a look. The way she picks up a tissue. Of course, she was open to change. But she knew where she wanted to start, so the emotional honesty of the performance never strayed. In the close-ups, you see Elf thinking, not Sarah.”

He’s equally dazzled by Pill.

“Yoli can be half-crazy, funny, she’s certainly loving, messed up, self-deprecating, insecure, but it doesn’t feel like she’s a train wreck,” he said. “That’s all Alison. She doesn’t have an ego. She internalized the dialogue and made it her own. She told me she’s most comfortable on a set.”

During a key scene in which Yoli snaps in a hospital parking garage, McGowan watched open-mouthed as Pill pushed the emotion to the limit.

“Where she took it was unexpected for me,” he said. “She’s completely exposed, and unafraid to not hold back. And the scene at the end of the film, where Mare and Alison are talking? It was a cold night, people were outside watching the monitors, and they were bawling. There was no sound, they couldn’t even hear the dialogue. It was just their faces.”

“For me, the tone of the whole movie is in that parking lot scene, which we shot early on,” Pill said in a phone interview. “Yoli has this crazed moment that is both warranted and not warranted. Then Mike cuts to her getting off the elevator, where she says, ‘I had some trouble parking.’ That juxtaposition, that’s All My Puny Sorrows.

“Trying to find the lightness in the heaviness is a lesson we can all learn better, especially in existentially trying times,” Pill continued. “The characters ask each other, ‘Is this almost too much?’ Yes – but it’s not too much yet. If you can keep saying almost, you can keep going. I love how alive these people are to each other, even when they’re gone. Which is ultimately all we get anyway in this world. To be kept alive in memory.”

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The film premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival this week.AMPS Productions

Winningham’s character, Lottie, is closely based on someone very much alive – Toews’s mother, Elvira. The actress, whose career includes scores of projects from St. Elmo’s Fire to American Horror Story, has a profound connection with Elvira: She, too, lost a child to suicide, and her calm sorrow deepens her portrayal.

“I did not want to go to Canada in November; I wanted to be home in Connecticut with my family, for our first Thanksgiving since the pandemic,” Winningham said in a phone interview. “And I did not want to go to those dark places in my mind. But Miriam and Mike were such open-hearted people, that allowed me to remain open-hearted.

“The issue of suicide shows up a lot in art, but it can get mired in disease,” she continued. “Mike’s script was different. It was about how the characters’ hearts explode and get pieced back together; it’s about, ‘How does one go on, how does one live?’ The beauty of life, the importance of life, in the face of sorrow and death. We have to know how to go on.”

Winningham spent her North Bay quarantine in an isolated cabin on a small lake. The production dropped off groceries and a rack of costumes to break in, and she began an e-mail correspondence with Toews. They shared music suggestions for Winningham’s daily 10-kilometre walks (Sinead O’Connor, Leonard Cohen), and Toews told stories about her mother.

“I am fascinated by Elvira’s humour, that life force she has,” Winningham said. “Where does that resilience come from?” Winningham requested a photo of Elvira and Toews snapped one on the spot: Elvira sitting at her kitchen table, drinking coffee. It became a talisman for Winningham; she studied it every day. She also made sure Elvira’s signature purple sweatpants show up on Lottie.

The film’s title comes from a Coleridge poem that is a favourite of Elf’s, and it encapsulates the theme of resilience – suffering is universal, but each of us wrestles with sorrow alone; what’s massive to us in the moment is puny in the ocean of time. Toews established the Von Riesens as a literary family, the kind who swap books and share references. McGowan was determined to keep their “Salingeresque quality” in his film. For example, at a key moment Lottie refers to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian writer; it’s both laugh-out-loud funny and heart-stopping.

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All My Puny Sorrows tells the story of two sisters, Yoli and Elf, and is based on Toews’s own sister and father.AMPS Productions Inc

For a successful director, McGowan is a modest, self-deprecating guy. Growing up in Toronto with five siblings, he spent his time running, reading and developing photos in his darkroom. After university, he was a freelance journalist, a carpenter and a teacher. When he and a pal decided to make a film (My Dog Vincent, 1998), he read a few books about directing and shot it for $150,000.

He still has imposter syndrome – “I’m plagued by my own inadequacies” – and describes his career as a series of fortunate accidents: “My Dog Vincent went to the Atlantic Film Festival, and then I wrote Henry’s World [an animated series] because I took a van ride with someone in the Alliance Atlantis kids department, and then they made Saint Ralph,” the 2004 film that put him on the map. “The line between success and failure is fairly arbitrary.”

He likens his job to “hosting a party,” trying to meet everyone’s needs, and COVID-19-bubbling with his crew in North Bay, he took that literally, whipping up Ramen Saturday Nights.

His actresses praise how open he was to their suggestions, but the only strength McGowan will admit to is his ability to pivot when things go sideways.

“I try to lay low, and make it about what I’m trying to do, rather than about me,” he said. “The best part of filmmaking is the process. Wrestling with your doubts trying to write the script, being outside in the freezing cold at 11 p.m. in North Bay, bouncing between despair and elation in the editing room. None of it is particularly glamorous, but it’s all profoundly satisfying.”

Still, going deep with All My Puny Sorrows has made McGowan bolder about his artistic ambitions.

“The way Miriam goes for art without being pretentious is something I’ll attempt to do again,” he admitted. “There’s such beauty in the way her book confirms that art is important, that it can be our armour. I’m leaning into that. There’s a sacredness to trying to figure these things out. A good film is so ephemeral, so dependent on alchemy. Any part of it can go so wrong. And when it goes right, it’s inexplicable.”

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