Jonathan Caouette made a sensation on the indie film scene in 2003 with Tarnation, an autobiographical documentary made of footage of himself and his family that he’d obsessively collected while growing up. The film’s psychedelic editing, next-level oversharing and DIY media hook (it was trumpeted as having a budget of $100, although that was nothing more than a shameless PR stunt, but I digress) made it a landmark of personal filmmaking.
Now, nearly 10 years later, Caouette is back with another intensely personal portrait, Walk Away Renée, a document of his struggles with Renée Leblanc, his highly troubled and unstable mother. A schizophrenic who frequently goes off her meds, Renée is a handful to say the least, and in true Caouette fashion their relationship is chronicled with no moment too intimate to turn the camera off.
Caouette’s no-holds-barred, brutally honest approach to depicting the frequent unravelling of a person with serious mental illness definitely brings up some questions about exploitation, to say nothing of quaint old-fashioned notions of propriety. But the discomfort this creates is mitigated by the fact that he clearly loves his mother and puts a lot of effort into her care; the scenes of her ranting incoherently, and lashing out at her son with incredibly hurtful outbursts, are balanced with moments of genuinely touching tenderness between the two.
While not as unrelentingly flashy as Tarnation, the film has a few virtuoso sequences of trippy, poetic filmmaking. I would have liked to see a few more of these, and not as many intertitles detailing the narrative; I always feel like documentarians use these as a crutch when they’re unable to tell a story visually, and Walk Away Renée uses them a lot. Still, the film is definitely worth seeing for its frank depiction of mental illness and for its display of Caouette’s unusual filmmaking talents. ■