Kathy McDonald (Anatasia Phillips) is a bartender in a small industrial Canadian town, but her real job is cleaning up the messes that Tammy (Felicity Huffman), her alcoholic mother with narcissistic tendencies, routinely makes. Helming her second feature — with a script from newcomer Joanne Sarazen — actress-turned-director Amy Jo Johnson (known for playing Julie on the late-1990s college drama Felicity) returns to the theme of the complexity of the parent-child relationship; her 2017 debut feature The Space Between told the story of a father who discovers his child isn’t biologically his.
Tammy’s Always Dying zooms in on the child’s perspective, delving into Kathy’s search for self inside a toxic relationship with her mother. Tammy manipulates Kathy into constantly taking care of her. Her go-to tactic for achieving this is to threaten to jump off a bridge; time after time, Kathy finds Tammy there leaning back against the ledge looking down, but she, of course, never jumps. Then Tammy is diagnosed with stage IV liver cancer, and their dynamic devolves even further when Kathy moves back home to help with her care.
The film chronicles Kathy’s gradual awakening to the fact that her relationship with her mother isn’t healthy, and that even though emotional abuse doesn’t leave physical bruises, it is still abuse. The promise of the first third of the movie is felt in how its two leads nail their acerbic interplay from the opening scene, along with a strong sense of place; the setting is a town that looks as worn out as the bond at the pic’s center.
But by the time we reach the midpoint, the main characters still feel underdeveloped. We don’t know Tammy’s backstory, how she became a drunk and what her life was like before we meet her in the film. We know more about Kathy, but her character registers as erratic and inscrutable. We know she’s having an affair with a married jerk and that her truest relationship is with her boss, Doug (Clark Johnson), who treats her to fancy dinners in fatherly fashion. But Kathy’s brokenness feels one-note — this in spite of the movie’s use of a Jerry-Springer-meets-Dr.-Phil talk show called The Gordon Baker Show as a heavy-handed plot device.
That’s where the film starts to go stale. The Gordon Baker Show mines personal tragedies for ratings and coaches its guests to exaggerate in their retelling of the toxic relationships that have injured them for entertainment value. We see Kathy watching the show throughout the movie, and after her mother’s cancer treatment starts working despite an initial prognosis of imminent death, Kathy tells the show’s producers that her mother committed suicide and she wants to tell her story. It’s inevitable that Kathy will eventually end up on the show, as there’s no other reason we keep seeing the voyeuristic “awws” of Gordon Baker’s audience pop up out of the blue throughout the movie. The script is clearly setting up a cathartic moment for Kathy, but it plays more like a parody when her tears begin to roll.
Add to this that the score is unnecessarily bubblegum in the upbeat moments and overly dramatic in the downturns. It’s a way of attempting to mask the pic’s flaws, superficially guiding us toward a feeling we’re meant to experience but that is never conveyed.
The main reason the film is worth a watch is the strong performances of its two leads. Huffman fully embodies Tammy as a feral aging mother with a sharp tongue. She’s always licking something or twitching uncomfortably, revealing her inner chaos in a way that’s never forced. Phillips holds her own, too, consistently showing us what it’s like to be trapped in a familial relationship, in a life, that always feels like work.
Johnson is still finding her voice as a filmmaker, but Tammy’s Always Dying makes clear she has something valuable to say about what it means to parent and be parented.
Production companies: JA Productions, Eggplant Pictures
Cast: Felicity Huffman, Anastasia Phillips, Clark Johnson, Lauren Holly, Kristian Bruun, Jessica Greco, Aaron Ashmore
Director: Amy Jo Johnson
Screenwriter: Joanne Sarazen
Executive producers: Martin Katz, Karen Wookey, Jeff Sackman, Berry Meyerowitz, Felicity Huffman, Amy Jo Johnson, Drew Ryce, James Shavick, Andrew Bell, Joannie Burstein, Harry Cherniak
Producer: Jessica Adams
Director of photography: Daniel Grant
Production designer: Marian Wihak
Editor: Bryan Atkinson
Sound: Bruce Fleming
Original score: Casey Manierka-Quaile
International Sales Agent: Aqute Media
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
Rated R, 85 minutes