Walk Away Renee: A Son's Take on His Mom's Mental Woes

Picking up where his 2004 Tarnation left off, Jonathan Caouette's new documentary is no less hermetic, autobiographical, messy, and ultimately touching. This time the focus is on his mentally ill mother, Renee LeBlanc, though Caouette himself is in just about every frame of the movie. He decides to drive her from a group home in Houston up to New York; en route, they lose all her meds, and her condition rapidly disintegrates. Is this a case of poor planning, elder abuse, or filmmaking MacGuffin? The director obviously loves his mother, but the road-trip conceit also gives him the chance to intersperse still more of his video diaries. (No, Tarnation didn't exhaust that bounty; Caouette seems to have recorded just about every moment of his life.) Delving back and forth in time, introducing his grandparents, boyfriend, and teen son (from a brief hetero fling), Caouette puts that footage into split-screens and dreamy montage, employing just about every film and video format ever invented, set to an oldies '80s soundtrack. The candor can be excruciating, the intimacy embarrassing. It's like Crumb without the genius at its center. Caouette's frequent phone calls to doctors, begging for lithium, suggest a more objective view of the situation; yet it turns out those are reenactments, not real. In her more lucid moments, the once lovely Renee is a ham, and her son does nothing but encourage her to perform. Late in the film, he delves into sci-fi with an animated, alternative-reality vignette that suggests how their roles might've been reversed. It's a jarring fictional interlude in a film whose form and subject are both schizophrenic.

 
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