By Don Simpson | July 20, 2012
Director: Jonathan Caouette
It would be difficult to deny that our society does not know how to deal with mental illness. Without proper treatment, the mentally ill often end up unable to hold down steady employment. If they do not have loved ones to watch after them, they usually become homeless or find themselves imprisoned. The worst cases kill themselves or others — travesties that could have been avoided if our society focused more on their treatment. I should also clarify that by treatment I do not mean medicating them into a near-comatose state, because armies of over-medicated zombies do not do anyone any good except for the health care industry.
Jonathan Caouette’s Walk Away Renée deals with the care of the mentally ill on an incredibly personal level. As with his 2004 documentary Tarnation, Walk Away Renée is a documentary of Caouette’s life; but this time he focuses more on his present relationship with his mother, Renée. Nonetheless, Caouette’s strange family past weighs heavily upon his present. For example, this film is rooted back to an event that occurred before Caouette was even born — when Renée fell off a roof. As part of her recovery process, her parents Rosemary and Adolph agreed to treating Renée with electric shock therapy for two years. That was around when her psychotic episodes began. Eventually, Renée was diagnosed with “acute bipolar and schizoaffective disorder.”
According to Caouette, lithium is the only drug that has been able to keep Renée stable and functioning. But things go horribly awry in 2010 when Renée’s doctors in Houston switch her lithium prescription with a cocktail of other pills. Living in New York City, Caouette must rely upon regular phone conversations with Renée to track her condition. This is how he first notices her drastic mental deterioration.
Caouette promptly arranges for Renée to be transferred to an assisted living facility for mental patients in Rhinebeck, NY. Knowing that Renée does not like flying, Caouette travels down to Houston, checks Renée out of the hospital and rents a moving truck. The mother and son embark upon a cross-country road trip. Renée is not due at Rhinebeck for several weeks, so Caouette intends for this trip to be a fun family vacation; but the fun does not last very long, as Renée’s medications go missing and her mental state rapidly deteriorates.
Since Renée has already checked out of her Houston hospital, those doctors can no longer help her. The Rhinebeck doctors cannot help her until she is formally checked in to their facility. No matter how much Caouette begs and pleads for a doctor to write some emergency scripts for Renée, their hands are tied. There are only two options: check Renée into the nearest clinic or continue onward to New York as originally planned. At the risk of sounding incredibly snarky, we would probably not be watching Walk Away Renée if Caouette did not choose the latter option.
After a long, strange trip, Caouette is finally able to check his mother into Rhinebeck. The doctors at Rhinebeck inform Caouette that they cannot treat his mother with lithium because it has been causing major liver damage. If Renée remains on lithium, it will definitely kill her. Unhappy with this diagnosis, Caouette opts to continue his search for a comfortable living situation for Renée.
As much as I love Walk Away Renée, I have no doubts that some will interpret this film as being exploitative of Renée. Exploitation is a fine line. Caouette’s film informs us on multiple occasions that Renée is a performer. The question is whether or not Renée knows that she is performing for the camera when she is in a severe state of psychosis. Personally, I think these scenes are necessary for two reasons: to reveal Renée’s true lunacy and as a loving gesture by Caouette to make his ailing mother into a star of the silver screen. I suspect there will be many viewers who have drastically different opinions.
Walk Away Renée also risks accusations of being too self-aggrandizing. Caouette’s film focuses on the drastic measures he takes in order to properly care for Renée. (Similarly, Tarnation is essentially about Caouette turning his life around after a nightmarish upbringing.) Despite the fact that Renée never really raised him, Caouette shows unwavering love and kindness for his birth mother. In other words, Walk Away Renée could be interpreted as Caouette informing us that he is an awesome person…which, well, he kind of is. Think about it. How many Americans care for the mentally ill as lovingly as Caouette? Walk Away Renée says that if Caouette can do this for a woman that he never really had a loving relationship with, why can’t we act similarly towards our own loved ones? Why are we not more involved in their medication and treatment?
No matter what you think about the perspective in which Caouette films his mother and himself, it is difficult to deny the power of Walk Away Renée‘s message about the health care industry and our society. In the 2010s, caring for someone with acute bipolar and schizoaffective disorder should not be this difficult. Everyone is different, so it takes time to determine the right medication(s) and dose(s) for treatment; and it is Caouette’s opinion that it takes a lot of patience and love to care for the mentally ill. Instead, our society cages them up in various types of medical institutions and pumps them with enough drugs to zombify an elephant. Why? We say that it is to keep them safe, but essentially it is to forget (or at least not worry) about them. Of course, not treating the mentally ill is just as bad — if not worse. As we have seen time and time again, neglect of the mentally ill and lax gun control is just a recipe for disaster. Will we ever learn?