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TIFF 2021: Beba, All My Puny Sorrows, To Kill the Beast | Festivals & Awards

“Beba” tells her story chronologically, using grainy film stock used for dreamier inserts, while crisp digital filmmaking captures candid interviews with her family members and friends. In these interviews, Huntt’s filmmaking goes beyond collecting stories from the past, but also about confronting certain modern behaviors or perspectives, sometimes leading to caustic interactions like with her mother. (They get into a divide about microaggressions, which in the context of the doc seem part of Huntt’s emotional growth in their recognition.) This active approach creates a lively portrait of not just Huntt but her family members, in which no one is given a safe presentation (not even the storyteller). Honesty is Huntt’s guiding virtue, even when confronting the family’s history of mental illness and abuse, which she echoes with some of her own actions; even in sequences that are effectively staged so that we can feel what she felt at one moment in time; even in moments that aren’t meant to be for more than family. She films her sister smoking, and the sister asks her to not include it in the film. As we know now, Huntt did. 

“Beba” shows how much wisdom and perspective comes from life experience, whether it’s based in immense pain, or curiosity, or outrage, or love. The story becomes its own adventure, in which you love the storyteller more, because of how much they are giving every bit of themselves to the project. That itself creates a sense of awe, and a great desire to see what they do next. 

Alison Pill and Sarah Gadon star in Michael McGowan’s “All My Puny Sorrows” as two sisters who come from a history of mental illness, with their father (Donal Logue) having died by suicide. Pill’s Yoli is a writer struggling with the next book; Gadon’s Elf is a concert pianist who is having heavy ideation and then makes an attempt on her own life that puts her in a mental hospital. The chemistry between the two actresses helps give some emotional dynamic to a very sad idea at the center; Elf wants to go to Switzerland for assisted suicide, so that she does not have to die alone, and she can’t get Yoli to ultimately accept her wish. “All My Puny Sorrows” is about a very specific melancholy life experience, and recognizing it, sitting with it, living in it. 

The story is adapted from a book by Miriam Toews, and while the film didn’t move me a great deal, it made me curious about the experience of the book. McGowan’s cinematic storytelling tools make the movie all the more familiar and numbing, like austere flashbacks to youth, Yoli’s intermittent voiceover from her book-in-progress, and establishing scenes of wintry Canada that make things seem all the more monochrome. Pill remains at the center, giving a performance with immense range and passion, but one that’s not supported by the writing. Part of the story belongs to Yoli and how Yoli changes, but those undercooked chapters—like about her as a mother, a soon-to-be ex-wife, and bed-partner to a scrub named Finbar—make the flatness of the narrative all the more evident. 

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