For those of us with relatives who suffer mental health problems, Jonathan Caouette’s Walk Away Renee– a documentary about his relationship with his mentally ill mother– is a raw punch to the most sensitive parts of the soul. For anyone who has ever wondered what life must be like for those with mentally ill relatives I can answer with authority: it’s like this.
Given my own family’s history I found Caouette’s Walk Away Renee almost as difficult to watch as Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream proved to be. In both cases it was not a matter of the skill of the filmmaker, but the nature of the material. This is an unblinking look at Caouette’s mother, Rene Leblanc, and her cycles of coherence and deterioration that were locked into place by shock treatments at an early age.
Caouette, the accomplished documentarian behind the 2003 Sundance and Cannes selection Tarnation has been obsessively shooting and collecting footage from his own life from an early age. From this great ocean of film and video he assembles a kind of biographical style that could best be described as a kind of MTV-stream-of-conciouness. The film oscillates between these jump-cut fugues down memory lane and the unfolding in the present story of Caouette making a cross-country trip with his mother to move her from Texas to a facility closer to his home in New York.
Disaster strikes along the way, and we bear witness to what happens when Leblanc goes off her meds. This sequence can, for those of us with mentally ill relatives, especially close family, dig up some pretty raw memories. Does it successfully communicate the depth of the feelings involved to those who don’t have the same family history? I hope it does, but I suspect that there is a delta between those of us who have lived this experience and those who have not that is nearly as wide as the gap between those who can see and the blind. Caouette’s ultimate aim is to bridge that delta, and he approaches his task with raw candor.
For a moment there I was tempted to write “with the kind of raw candor that is usually reserved for blogs shared amongst friends”. This would, however, belittle the courage which Caouette is operating from. All too often in the current age of over-sharing we are inundated with the minutiae of our associates lives, details that cease to have any meaning outside of the heads of those who have experienced them. Walk Away Renee is emphatically not that. The film is the kind of work that the spinners of such tales think they are creating when they stand up on their bully pulpit and share their oh-so-important “truth”.
I can’t guarantee that you’ll have a hell of a lot of fun watching Walk Away Renee, but you may learn more about a part of the world you never knew.
Walk Away Renee is available on demand as part of the SundanceNow Doc Club.