CAPSULE: WALK AWAY RENEE (2011)

DIRECTED BY: Jonathan Caouette

FEATURING: Renee Leblanc, Jonathan Caouette

PLOT: Jonathan Caouette documents his mentally ill mother Renee’s move from a group home in Houston to one in New York; on the trip she loses her medication and dementia and paranoia set in.

Still from Walk Away Renee (2011)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though its subject is bonkers, and its experimental methodology sometimes follows suit, Renee is only weird by the standards of documentary filmmaking. The movie has episodes of madness, but most of the time it’s fairly stable.

COMMENTS: A crazy-quilt of documentary footage, recreations, old home movies, and psychedelic montages, Walk Away Renee is meandering to the point of being psychotic, an arguably appropriate approach given its subject. Filmmaker Jonathan Caouette’s mother (he always calls her Renee, never Mom) is both bipolar and schizoaffective; even in her most lucid moments, she seems distant and distracted. When she’s unstable, she becomes panicky and irritable, and talks about the dead baby inside her while sitting in the doorway of a Manhattan business and screaming at her son to leave her alone. Once a gorgeous green-eyed brunette who could have been a model, fifty years of being unable to care for herself while drifting in and out of institutions have taken their toll on her beauty; she’s lost several teeth, which causes her to mumble and makes her offbeat declarations (“I’m Dolly Parton!,” “Want to be in the family circus?”) even harder to understand. The traditional family roles have been reversed; the son mothers the mom, taking her for Ferris wheel rides at the fair and overseeing the diet of antipsychotic medication necessary to keep her coherent. This dynamic leads to touchingly ironic moments, as when the son stops his distracted mom from stepping out into traffic; this event reminds her of her motherly duties, and at the next crosswalk she tells him to be careful and hold her hand while crossing the street. The opening epigram, from Einstein, suggests that past, present and future are a “stubbornly persistent illusion,” which the movie uses as a license to intersperse home video footage of a younger Renee throughout the contemporaneous story of relocation from Houston to New York City. Some of the memories are wistful ones of happier times, when guileless Renee would play at being the lead actress in Jonathan’s home movies. Others, from Renee’s stay in the 1990s with her demented eighty-year-old father in his filthy Houston home, seem to come right out of one of ‘s nightmares: the two screech at each other, caught up in separate delusions, while a toy baby doll cackles demonically in the background. Avant-garde montages also intrude on the proceedings, utilizing layers of home movies edited into psychedelic backgrounds, meant to dislocate us inside Renee’s weaving brain. This process culminates in a kaleidoscopic trip through an umbilical wormhole connecting alternate soap-bubble universes. Of course, we know that editorial selection has created the story we are seeing, but we want to believe (and have no real reason to doubt) that this vision captures the essence of their relationship. Caouette, whose face is constantly photographed in worried closeups, presents himself as the long-suffering good son. It’s a little self-serving, but there’s nothing to suggest he hasn’t earned such a portrayal; anyone who has cared for a mentally ill relative deserves a little pat on the back. The knowledge that this is one of those newfangled “hybrid” docs—-many of the scenes are recreations rather than live events, all of the voices of doctors and nurses on the other end of the frantic phone calls are voiced by actors, and Caouette gives himself a “story” credit, an unconventional touch for a supposed documentary—also undercuts the emotional impact a bit. Still, there is enough of the undeniably real Renee here to make this a touching, if meandering, tribute to a gentle soul whose misfiring neurons have trapped her in an eternal childhood.

Caouette’s 2003 documentary Tarnation covered much of the same ground, with more focus on the (also dysfunctional) grandparents who raised him. That movie was edited on an Apple laptop with an estimated budget of $218 and was championed as a masterpiece of DIY filmmaking. Most of the critics who panned Renee suggested that it was little more than a bigger-budgeted remake of Tarnation; not having seen the original, I found this effort to be interesting and poignant.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There are also elaborate, ‘Tree of Life’-style effects for an ill-advised science-fiction subplot that further distances this follow-up from reality.”–Lou Lumenick, New York Post (contemporaneous)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.