“Listen to me, don’t talk,” Jonathan Caouette tells his mother, Renée. “You need to get off the Risperdal. You need to be back on Lithium.” It’s 2010, at the start of Walk Away Renée: he’s home in New York, she’s in Houston, at the group home where he hoped she might find a mix of independence and close-to-round-the-clock care. But the more Jonathan listens to her, the more he realizes she can’t be there, that their living arrangements will need to shift — again. And in this realization, the new film picks up where the old one left off. The son must sort out what to do with his mother.
The old film is Tarnation, Caouette’s brilliant 2004 first feature. The new film, opening at BamCinemaFest on 27 June at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, when it will be followed by a Q&A with Caouette, and also available on VOD through SundanceNOW, is at once a continuation and a departure. It reminds you of the first film’s extraordinary mix of documentary-diary-performance-arty effects, inserting some familiar footage and some previously unseen, updating you on figures from before, including Caouette’s now deceased grandfather Adolph and his now 15-year-old son Joshua. It reminds you that people make bad decisions, even people who, as Caouette insists, can love each other while also being abusive and hurtful, that they can mean one thing and say another.
This complexity — of who sees whom and how — shapes the new film in a new way. Apart from the look-back images, Walk Away Renée shows Jonathan now, with Renée, road-tripping from Houston to a new facility in upstate New York, sometimes via a camera he sets up in the cab, sometimes via another camera, traveling in a car beside their U-Haul truck or watching them as they walk in parks or on sidewalks. If part of the puzzle of Tarnation had to do with how Renée understood and used the camera — her singing and dancing before it, her outbursts over it — here the questions of her awareness are mixed in with questions about Jonathan’s. They see they’re recorded, they respond to being recorded, but the realities resulting from each experience are different. “People should have more empathy for the mentally ill,” Jonathan tells a TV interviewer during his tour for Tarnation, replayed here. “I feel that they are definitely in another place and that place really does exist.” Walk Away Renée offers up another sort of place. And if there’s no doubt it exists, the film also leaves open how it has come to be.