Title: Walk Away Renee
Director: Jonathan Caouette
In 2004 Jonathan Caouette made a film, “Tarnation,” about his tumultuous upbringing with his maternal grandparents and fractured, on-and-off-again relationship with his disturbed mother, Renee LeBlanc, who suffered from psychosis after undergoing shock treatments in her adolescence following a period of time being paralyzed. The movie, which screened at Sundance and Cannes, became something of a media sensation for being edited on free iMovie software on a Mac and having a budget of only a couple hundred dollars (though subsequently brushed up sonically prior to a theatrical release), but it was no parlor trick. An intense and unsettling autobiographical bricolage, the movie had important things to say about psychological abuse and the familial legacy of mental illness.
“Walk Away Renee,” which premiered as a work-in-progress at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, represents Caouette’s follow-up to “Tarnation,” and it also centers around his 58-year-old mother, now living in a group home in Houston, diagnosed with acute bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder. While partially framed around a 2010 road trip to bring Renee to an assisted living facility closer to him, in New York, the film is, more broadly, an achingly melancholic, fairly haunting and inescapably human document that shines a light on some of the less typically discussed dimensions of mental illness.
The mode of its telling conforms to Caouette’s collagist instincts, incorporating digital home video footage, large swathes of photo flashback montage, probing but casual conversational footage, and even a string of answering machine messages from his mother that captures the wild swings of her many moods. During the road trip, Caouette — wearing under his eyes the bags of someone who’s had to spend a lifetime emotionally bobbing and weaving — deals with lost medications and seemingly ad hominem attacks. But what gives this material extra depth and resonance (whether or not one has seen “Tarnation”) is his skillful touch with tapestral downheartedness.
In a sense, “Walk Away Renee” is both a love letter and a break-up letter. It shows a deep bond between single mother and only son, but also the limits of this relationship, and the veritable chasm that mental illness represents between those struggling with it and those who love them. For viewers accustomed to the pantomimed regret and emotional skirmishes of more traditional Hollywood dramas, Caouette’s movie is like a whiskey shot of pain. It can hurt, this reflection of reality, but there’s a sad, purple beauty here as well.
Written by: Brent Simon