Helmer Jonathan Caouette describes his sophomore follow-up to his autobiographical debut, “Tarnation,” as an “equal” rather than a sequel. But sadly, “Walk Away Renee” is the lesser film. There are lovely and affecting moments in this account of his life and his relationship with his mentally ill mother, Renee Leblanc, which further underscore Caouette’s considerable and innovative talent as a filmmaker. His ambition to extend his range with more scripted material here is even laudable, but it’s precisely this element that falls flattest and undermines the pic’s commercial potential. Ultimately, “Renee” feels less like a walk away than a retread.
It is a fact universally acknowledged that many helmers have built careers reworking the same movie in barely distinguishable guises. But in this case, “Renee” really does feel something like a remake of “Tarnation,” this time with more budget and less feeling.
Roughly half of the material recounts Renee’s and Jonathan’s life stories, an entwined tale of institutionalization, foster homes and dysfunctional upbringing that would be more heartbreaking if Caouette hadn’t already covered much of the same ground and even used some of the same images and homemovie footage.
The other half follows Caouette in 2010, and essentially updates his and Renee’s stories, revealing that not much has really changed. A large chunk observes (with pro lensers this time round) Caouette taking a road trip in a U-Haul truck with Renee from Houston to New York state so she can stay in an assisted-living facility nearer to him; his partner, David Sanin Paz; and his son, Joshua.
Along the way, the month’s supply of medications necessary to keep Renee on an even keel goes missing, and once again, as in “Tarnation,” Caouette films himself making long phone calls to medical professionals to try to get the prescription refilled. (Per credits, the voices of those professionals he talks to have been redubbed with others’ voices to protect identities.)
Where “Renee” differs most substantially from “Tarnation” is in its use of scripted and phantasmagoric interludes that sit uneasily among the docu elements. Before the road trip, Caouette meets up with a kooky group called the Cloudbusters who want to live in the fourth dimension, and whose clunky thesping give away the game that this part is faked.
The notion of other dimensions and alternative universes crops up again in a TV interview, and the pic even takes time out to go down a CGI rabbit hole, landing back on Earth in some kind of hipster update of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” replete with an effectively droning indie soundtrack. A dream sequence briefly visits an alternative universe where Caouette is the one with schizo-affective disorder, and his mother (played by an actress) is the supposedly sane one.
These sci-fi elements might have taken the pic in a fertile new direction if they’d been more developed, but as it is, they lie inert, adding little to the ballad of Renee and Jonathan, while subtracting potential emotional impact. Structurally, although precisely edited within individual sequences — especially within the musical montages — the pic is all over the place. Even the ending feels unsatisfying, especially since it leaves unanswered how Caouette will deal with the climactic dilemma one doctor presents to him about Renee’s care.
On the upside, both subjects remain engaging, likable presences even when Renee is at her most manic and disturbed. Anyone who’s had to care for a sick parent won’t fail to be moved by his gentle devotion to his mother, even those who might feel more uncomfortable about the appropriateness of filming her at all, given her frequent confusion about what’s going on around her.
Caouette’s great taste in music, evinced in “Tarnation” and further proved by his work on docu “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” reps one of the pic’s saving graces.