A Compassionate Chronicle of Mental Illness in ‘Walk Away Renee’

The filmmaker behind ‘Tarnation’ picks up a camera again to film a road trip with his mother.

Filmmaker Jonathan Caouette and his mother Renee LeBlanc hit the road from Houston to New York City in the new documentary Walk Away Renee. (Photo: Courtesy of SundanceNow)

Jul 4, 2012· 1 MIN READ
Stephen Saito writes about movies for the L.A. Times, IFC.com and his own site, The Moveable Fest.

With the long-term psychological effects of something so seemingly mundane as spanking children back in the news, there's an added poignancy to the new documentary Walk Away Renee, a sympathetic study of mental illness.

Walk Away Renee is director Jonathan Caouette's follow-up to his acclaimed 2003 autobiographical doc, Tarnation. He once more delves into his complicated relationship with his mother, Renee, who became mentally ill after being treated at a young age with shock therapy to cure paralysis that was the result of a fall. Still dealing with the ramifications of that therapy in her late fifties (which include bipolar disorder and schizophrenia), she appears to be at peace on lithium despite an overdose in 2002 that led to permanent brain damage.

"It's really just about painting a portrait of my mom [as a] kind of poster woman for people to see that these are very loving, lovable people and that people should just have more empathy for the mentally ill," Caouette tells TakePart. "Ultimately, I think both of the films have established a conversation about a subject matter that most people would never talk about." The film is currently traveling on the festival circuit and available nationally on video-on-demand.

Although Caouette never intended to make another movie involving his family, a desire to augment and preserve the unused archival materials from Tarnation led him to pick up the camera again. An unusual opportunity for an intimate road movie presented itself when he moved Renee, who is afraid to fly, from a nursing home in her native Houston to a facility closer to him in New York. Caouette is careful not to exploit his traveling companion, a passenger with mercurial mood swings and a host of prescriptions to attend to. With Walk Away Renee, he hopes to put audiences in his shoes.

After starting this journey nearly a decade ago, much has changed. Tarnation, edited on iMovie and made with a paltry budget of $218.32, served as a technological precursor to the age of YouTube, where anyone with access to a camera can make films. That, Caouette believes, has led to a more cynical culture overall, and a more callous attitude toward people like his mother.

"As a result of the Internet and the barrage of media and the aesthetics that people are used to seeing on a daily basis, there's a big sense of disassociation and desensitizing that's happening," Caouette says. "People's empathy levels are going down. These films are not cries out for help. [That's] not why I made the films. At the same time, it's always encouraging to see if you can kind of find somebody who has a little bit of empathy, a little bit of understanding."

Those are things Caouette not only demonstrates in his films, but in real life as well. He's happy to report that since the film, he and his mother now cohabitate in the same apartment building in New York in what he calls "the most doable, amazing situation that we've been in so far."