Born out of a truck load of home videos, answering machine recordings, and photographs, Jonathan Caouette's 2003 autobiographical "Tarnation" was a dearly personal and often frightening no-holds-barred look into a family torn apart by a tortured past. Cobbled together with iMovie before YouTube was even a twinkle in a vlogger's eye, the film bleeds honesty and its fearless look at the subjects (including the director himself) can be downright terrifying at times. But it wasn't just a family arguing or bitterly digging into old wounds — Caouette had a manic, assaulting editing style and a penchant for some truly disturbing experimental sequences, an aesthetic that exhibited their emotional states in a fresh, genuinely perturbing way. A hit at the Sundance Film Festival, the movie went on to gather a number of ecstatic supporters and thrust the director into the spotlight. We're now in 2012, and after helming documentary "All Tomorrow's Parties" and the Chloë Sevigny horror short "All Flowers In Time," Caouette has revisited the well with "Walk Away Renee," a sequel/ending of sorts to "Tarnation" that operates with the same nature as its predecessor. It's a work that's just as strong and, without feeling like a retread, posits the bigger questions dealing with time, structure, and reality.
Renee Leblanc, Jonathan's mother who endured electroshock treatment in her youth, is now residing in a group home in Texas. Through conversation, her son discovers that the establishment has been providing her the incorrect medication — a drug she's absolutely not supposed to take — and mayhem ensues. The pacing becomes frantic, eventually settling down when the filmmaker decides to find a new home for her right outside of New York City (where he's settled with his partner and son). Since Renee doesn't do air travel well, he embarks on a road trip to ultimately deliver her to this new residence, picking his parent up in Houston and trekking all the way back to the Big Apple via automobile. While her general instability combined with a tiring drive seems like a recipe for disaster, the two actually retain a very close, intimate relationship — but unfortunately things derail when they realize that she's misplaced her medication. Far from home and weeks away from her official check-in (the biggest hurdle: doctors cannot prescribe anything until she's actually living there), Jonathan is forced to keep his mother together on the long ride home.
The long expedition isn't complete chaos, and the quieter moments allow the director to reflect (and inform, for the newcomers) of his past. Throughout 'Walk Away' he revisits "Tarnation," revealing information given by that documentary and also examining what happened afterwards such as the post-screening Q&As and major life events (the biggest being the passing of grandfather/adopted guardian Adolph Davis). But these inclusions of his first effort seem to be more than just reminders, rehashes, or food for the uninitiated: the film opens with a quote from Albert Einstein refuting our concept of time ("The distinction of past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion"), and Caouette spends the duration of the movie cutting to and from different time periods effortlessly. Given that these sibling projects frequently delve into the past to explain the present (for example, Renee's behavior makes more sense when we know of her shock treatment), the filmmaker may be arguing against the theorist's statement by assembling different kinds of footage with clear distinctions (childhood videos are grainy video, present is HD, etc.) and touching on numerous examples of cause-and-effect. Then again, he could just be proving the theorist's statement. Regardless, it's a tough nut to crack what he's really saying here, offering a pretty dense conversation for those who wish to delve that deep.
Another topic brought up which may relate to the issue of temporality are parallel universes or multiple realities, an idea that Jonathan comes across on television one night while he's recovering after the long trip to NYC. The concept, as stated by a talking head, is entirely plausible, causing Caouette to visualize this notion in a "Tree of Life"-inspired CGI venture, along with a staged sequence featuring himself and his mother following afterwards. This section, especially the effect-driven space journey, are a bit of a leap (the filmmaker's experimental flourishes work terrifically when he's expressing emotions but feel hackneyed when he's visualizing his wandering thoughts), but it does raise another discussion about reality of film and, in smaller terms, the reality/truth of documentary. Many of the doctor's voices are played by actors, and the filmmaker even goes out of his way to include cinematic opening credits, listing himself and his family as if they were actors — are "Walk Away Renee" and "Tarnation," using this logic, technically parallel realities despite their documentary label?
Maybe these kinds of questions are too heady; the narrative within is strong enough to hook regardless if the deeper substance doesn't resonate. The looming medication situation over Jonathan and Renee's heads is rather compelling, with the mother slowly unraveling (at a certain point, she plants herself on the sidewalk and berates her son) and the filmmaker appearing as if he'd break down from exhaustion at any minute. Struggles between the two continue even as they finally reach New York; Renee is at her most berserk a mere number of days before she is set to enter the group residence. There are still some breaks from this narrative present, some of the sweeter ones involving the director and his son — the former compliments his kin on his sanity and keeping his shit together, something Caouette admits he was never able to do at his age. It's a genuinely touching moment and a nice chaser considering the ball of turmoil Renee has become.
As his mother finally enters the assisted-living dormitory that the pair had been journeying towards the entire film, things end on a bitter note after a conversation with a doctor — but no matter, as Jonathan closes 'Walk Away' triumphantly with Renee getting a new set of teeth and flashing them to the camera, seemingly much more stable than she had been on their voyage. Maybe it's not the real way her story ended, but it's the way the filmmaker saw fit to conclude the proceedings: with optimistic joy. "Walk Away Renee" is a wild, brutal ride through a family's psyche; a movie that contemplates big questions while never forgetting the people in the center. [B+]
"Walk Away Renee" screens at BAMCinemafest today and is available on SundanceNOW.com as part of the documentary subscription service Doc Club.