Film Review: Walk Away ReneeLess a sequel than an extension of Jonathan Caouette's brilliant <i>Tarnation</i>, this follow-up covers too little fresh ground.
In his innovative 2004 debut feature Tarnation, made on an iMac mostly out of years' worth of home movies and photographic material, Jonathan Caouette forged a new kind of pop-poetic memoir. The film was a cathartic exploration of his emergence as a gay man, and of his determined struggle to remain the one constant in the life of his mentally and emotionally unstable mother. That struggle clearly is ongoing, but revisiting the subject in Walk Away Renee yields far less consistent rewards.
Given the unconventional personalities around which the films are woven, it's tempting to compare Caouette's companion piece to what Albert Maysles did in 2006 with The Beales of Grey Gardens. That belated afterthought to Grey Gardens, the landmark cinéma-vérité documentary he made 31 years earlier with his late brother David Maysles, unearthed a wealth of unseen footage.
There was no shortage of fascinating material, and there are doubtless enough Edith/Edie cultists to ensure a DVD life for the second installment. But returning to a private world that has already been so beguilingly accessed can be deflating, even banal. As different as they are in style, superior personal documentary portraits like Grey Gardens or Tarnation provide a sense of intimate discovery that inevitably is missing on second acquaintance.
The primary reason for Caouette's new chapter is a cross-country trip he took with his 58-year-old mother, Renee Leblanc, who suffers from acute bipolar and schizoaffective disorder. In and out of psychiatric facilities for most of her life, she endured a prolonged period of shock treatments as a teenager. When her condition deteriorated in 2010, Caouette packed her up in a U-Haul truck to move her from Houston to an assisted living facility in Rhinebeck, New York, closer to his home. But the loss en route of Renee's 30-day medication supply causes major problems, sparking a frustrating odyssey of calls to medical professionals.
Where Tarnation careened off on crazy pop-cultural tangents to show the influences that helped shape Caouette as a gay adolescent, Walk Away Renee delves into rudimentary sci-fi territory.
There's a silly bit early on in which Caouette has supposedly been contacted by a crackpot group called Cloudbusters to shoot an outreach video (tacked onto the end credits) spreading the word about their theories concerning the fourth dimension. There's also talk of the universal healing energy carried in cloud movement. Later, a TV report on alternate universes unleashes a blast of psychedelic digital effects to convey mind-warping escape.
Caouette certainly knows how to manipulate images and sound, painting on a vibrantly textured, semi-experimental canvas. But aside from visual stimulation set to some cool music, none of the fictional stuff adds much.
There are many disarming, unguarded moments between mother and son, and the film is most affecting when Renee's increasingly off-the-rails behavior causes Caouette to turn back the clock to earlier episodes in their lives. These experiences will no doubt always remain raw for him, and continuing to process them through his films may be his means of growing as an artist. It also may be necessary for him in order to stay sane, anchored and committed to loving someone so difficult to handle.
It's problematic, however, that we learn very little here that wasn't more stirringly conveyed in the earlier film. In its mesmerizing, propulsive drive, Tarnation was a heartfelt scramble to make sense of messy lives. Walk Away Renee is an occasionally illuminating patchwork.
—The Hollywood Reporter