Very few filmmakers have had a life quite like that of beloved documentarian Jonathan Caouette. Having a rather colored childhood, he went to film to document his life with his mother and grandparents in the form of the utterly brilliant avant-garde documentary, Tarnation. However, with the film finding a difficult time making any splashes outside of the critical realm, the director, who grew up with a camera in his hands, has since only co-directed one feature (All Tomorrow’s Parties) and solo-directed a handful of shorts.
But thankfully, Caouette is back in the director’s chair for his next outing as a documentarian, with a follow-up of sorts to his iconic debut, a film entitled Walk Away Renee. And he hasn’t skipped a beat.
A proto-sequel to Tarnation, Renee is an equally transfixing look into Caouette’s relationship with his mother, Renee, who is mentally ill. In the time before she is set to be entered into a hospital/assisted living center, Jonathan decides to take his mother on a cross-country road trip. Throughout the film, we become privy to the highest highs and the lowest lows of both Renee and her relationship with her son, and how all of this has truly effected our director on a cavalcade of levels. A moving love letter to his mother, Walk Away may be covering ground already treaded upon by his beloved debut, but Caouette has become a director so firmly rooted in his style, that this film may very well be the most must-see documentary that 2012 has to offer.
Visually, the film is awe inspiring. Relatively mundane compared to something like the punk rock experimentation found inside of Tarnation, this film takes both narrative ideas as well as stylistic cues from its predecessor. However, it’s far more distilled and assured. Save for a bookend that may steer a bit too far off the creativity cliff, the film is beautifully rendered, evocative, and the handful of montages of actual footage from his life, Caouette is so singular in his vision that there is simply no film like this.
He’s also one to not pull his punches. Giving us insights into what would in most cases be the most personal of personal moments, ranging from dealing with a grandfather near his death to fights with his mother, Caouette takes stylistic liberties with the footage shot specifically for this film (take a brooding of polarizingly out of place sequence in a bathtub near the conclusion) but he gives the viewer the most pure, fly-on-the-wall style look into a life full of pain, and also full of unconditional love. Never one to demonize the people who have lived in his life, Caouette is unabashedly loving of his mother, who is the number one person in his life, despite the trouble that she may cause him. It’s this meditative and introspective look into the mother and son relationship that makes Walk Away Renee the fantastic documentary that it truly is.
Running a tad too long, and definitely a tough watch for those unsure of how far down the experimentation rabbit hole they are willing to tread, Walk Away Renee is on par with the best of the best this year. Right up there with year-best documentaries like Crazy Horse, trying to rank this film is a foolish errand. Simply the most original film that you’ll see all year, Caouette has cemented himself as one of today’s foremost documentary filmmakers. Similar to his debut, Renee admittedly runs over known ground, but it’s a breathtaking document of the mother-son relationship that is unlike anything you’ll ever see. Words can’t describe what wonder this film truly is, and yet, that’s the best compliment one could ever pay to this heart-felt piece of experimental cinema.
The film will be available via SundanceNOW’s Doc Club. Check it out here.