'Mommy Dead and Dearest': Film Review | SXSW 2017

Mommy Dead and Dearest Still SXSW - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of HBO
A sobering, heartbreaking look behind the lurid headlines.

Erin Lee Carr, who previously delved into the case of New York’s "cannibal cop," investigates another true-crime case in her second documentary.

In June 2015, when a Missouri sheriff held a press conference about the stabbing murder of 48-year-old Dee Dee Blanchard in her bed, he cautioned that “things are not always as they appear.” You might call that an understatement. Blanchard’s chronically ill, wheelchair-bound daughter was a chief suspect, but the most shocking aspect of the case was that Gypsy Rose could walk, and the catalog of diseases for which she’d been treated over her 19 years was pure fiction.

With a clear eye for the bizarre twists, absurdities and horrors that shape a tabloid story, filmmaker Erin Lee Carr is concerned first and foremost with that story’s real-life characters. Mommy Dead and Dearest gathers many voices to explain how, in the case of Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose Blanchard’s ballyhooed bond, loving togetherness was in fact a sociopathic stranglehold.

Digging beneath the headlines of the high-profile matricide, which turned out to involve one of the most horrific examples of Munchausen syndrome by proxy ever documented, Carr’s film poses as many provocative questions as it answers. The small-screen-ready doc, which debuts on HBO in May, is a polished mix of police interrogation footage, home movies and eye-opening new interviews, including a lengthy conversation with Gypsy Rose, in prison stripes and handcuffs.

The notion of justifiable homicide is one of the knotty dilemmas Carr’s compelling film addresses, as is the burning issue that Gypsy Rose, in her little-girl voice, articulates during her interview: “Why couldn’t anybody figure this out before it got this bad?”

Why indeed. How neighbors, family and, above all, medical personnel didn’t see through Louisiana native Dee Dee’s long-running fraud is one of the story’s most disturbing aspects, second only to the abuse itself. Carr speaks with one doctor who questioned the mother’s veracity, pediatric neurologist Bernardo Flasterstein. He even put the phrase “Munchausen by proxy” in writing. But, he tells the filmmaker, he knew it would be a losing cause to push the matter beyond his office-visit report. In what might be seen as an excuse but is certainly a hauntingly accurate insight, the doctor says that his accusations would not be viewed kindly or objectively, not after so much emotional and financial investment by physicians and the cancer-survivor community in the selfless mother and her poster child.

The film traces a mother-daughter act in which Gypsy Rose was essentially a hostage. Not only did Dee Dee put her through unnecessary surgeries and treatments — the girl’s phantom ailments included leukemia, muscular dystrophy, epilepsy and waist-down paralysis — but she kept Gypsy Rose’s chronological age from her and insisted that she was developmentally disabled.

It was, in one observer’s words, a “nightmare fairy tale.” In a twist that’s less strange than it might seem, the rescuing prince for this trapped Rapunzel — Nicholas Godejohn, a young man with Asperger syndrome who confessed to committing the murder at Gypsy Rose’s behest — was into BDSM and cosplay. After a lifetime of accommodating her mother’s depraved schemes, Gypsy Rose found herself willingly creating online roles for each of his multiple personalities.

Whether she’s still playing a role is impossible to say, as journalist Michelle Dean, who wrote about the case for BuzzFeed, reminds us. But for someone whose psyche was formed under such extreme circumstances, Blanchard comes across as earnest, sweet and forthcoming. Whatever her texts with Godejohn reveal about their murderous plot and their romantic delusions, it’s hard not to be moved by the astounding fact that she’s alive, out of her wheelchair, freed of her feeding tube and breathing machine. Reasonably, prosecutors saw no reason to pursue the death penalty. For others, even jail time is unwarranted; as Blanchard’s step-grandmother puts it, “She was punished enough.”

Carr, a former member of the Vice video team whose Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop aired on HBO two years ago, has a knack for working with interviewees who probably have good reason to be media-averse, making them comfortable and drawing them out. Among the relatives of Dee Dee the filmmaker spoke with, no one has a good thing to say. One of her siblings suggested flushing her ashes down the toilet. The word “evil” is frequently heard.

The most revelatory interview subject, besides Gypsy Rose, is her father, Rod Blanchard, who at 17 thought he was doing the right thing by marrying his pregnant girlfriend. Unlike his daughter, he was able to escape the master manipulator. With his Dylan T-shirt, steady gaze and Cajun drawl, it’s easy to see that he and Dee Dee didn’t belong together.

But it’s his current wife, Kristy, who most viewers will identify with. As she and Rod meet with his daughter’s public defender and piece together their own memories, her pain over what Gypsy Rose endured could not be more apparent. Looking at a photo of Gypsy Rose when she was an able-bodied teenager being passed off as half her true age and paraplegic, Kristy wonders aloud what the girl might have been thinking at that moment. We may never know, but Carr’s film brings Gypsy Rose Blanchard’s ordeal into the light.

Production company: Abstract Productions
Distributor: HBO Documentary Films
Director: Erin Lee Carr
Producers: Andrew Rossi, Erin Lee Carr
Executive producer: Sheila Nevins
Director of photography: Bryan Sarkinen
Editor: Andrew Coffman
Composer: Ian Hultquist
Venue: South by Southwest (Documentary Feature Competition)

82 minutes