Judge Brett Cullum goes crazy on road trips too, but not quite like this.
A hopeful look at a hopeless situation.
Walk Away Renee is the spiritual sequel to Jonathan Caouette's 2003 breakout feature Tarnation, picking up right where the first film left off. While Tarnation explored Jonathan's entire life up to him leaving for New York City and establishing himself there, this one focuses on a cross country trip he takes with his mentally unstable mother Renee as he transfers her to a facility near him in New York state. He gives the viewer much of the same information revealed in the previous project, but this film explores her condition with more focus and depth. It's not nearly as flashy as the "made on a dime" Tarnation which is far more hallucinatory, but still has plenty to say about mental health and happiness in America.
Jonathan grew up in Houston, and the story starts with him picking up his mother from a group home where she is not being medicated correctly. We hear disturbing phone calls with her blathering on without logic or linear thought. He soon puts her and her possessions in a U-Haul, and begins the long drive to upstate New York. Somewhere in Mississippi, Renee loses her medication, and because she is between facilities no doctors are willing to write new prescriptions. The film shows her spiral out of control, as Jonathan does his best to manage the situation. It feels genuine, but one can't help wonder if this for the film or an actual bump in the road the cameras are ready for. Is it a sly slight of hand to show us more, or a truthful moment of desperation?
During this trip, Caouette flashes back using home movies and videos of Renee, her family, and himself to flesh out her story. It's a journey that includes electro-shock therapy, many trips to mental institutions, and a constant battle to find the right medications to manage her manic episodes. He uses many of the same techniques from his previous film, but this one feels a little more grown up and assured as it unfolds Renee and her plight. Re-enactments, animation, split screens, and a moody 1980s and '90s soundtrack help create a film that makes us feel as much as think. There is even a surreal bit that takes place in an alternate universe where Jonathan is taken care by his mother rather than the reverse.
Walk Away Renee is a valentine from Jonathan Caouette to his mother. It shows how she falls apart when mistreated, but blossoms when given the right mix of pills and love. It's a film that shows a heartbreakingly honest view of mental illness, and works to take the viewer on a ride with two people you grow to care about. At times, it can feel too eager to expose everything, but this is what Caouette is known and celebrated for. His mom seems to be a natural ham even in her most muddled state, so it's not too hard to figure out where he came by it.
Presented in standard def 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, the transfer looks great with a nice clarity during the properly filmed scenes. The archival footage looks exactly like what you would expect from VHS copies of home films from the '80s, not so sharp and grainy. The Dolby 5.1 Surround track is full and executed beautifully. MPI's release is "feature only" with no extras beyond a trailer to delve into or explore. That might be a good call, beacause the commentary on Tarnation revealed a bit too much about the manipulations and licenses taken in Caouette's story, and this one doesn't need debunking.
Walk Away Renee is a worthy sequel to Tarnation, and a testament to a filmmaker growing up. It asks some hard questions about how we treat the mentally ill, and shows some scary moments that will make you wish for something better for everyone who slips into this.
Not guilty. Renee and Jonathan deserve all the happiness they can find.
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