Directed by Amy Jo Johnson (The Space Between), Tammy’s Always Dying tells the story of Catherine (Anastasia Phillips), a woman trapped in a dysfunctional relationship with her suicidal mother, Tammy (Felicity Huffman). Every month, Catherine finds herself having to literally talk her self-destructive mother off the ledge of the same bridge. Caught in the confines of co-dependency, these suicide attempts are Tammy’s selfish way of keeping hold of her daughter and, havin been broken by the experience of trying to save her mother, also the only thing that Catherine believes she’s good at anymore. When Tammy is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Cathy’s repressed desire to leave her small town pushes her to leave. However, even if she were to go, she carries the guilt of responsibility and she questions what it will take for her to be truly free.
Having premiered at TIFF 19, Tammy’s Always Dying takes a long, hard (and sometimes funny) look at the relationship between co-dependency and mental health. Written by Joanne Sarazen, the film primarily showcases the relationship between Catherine and her alcoholic mother from Catherine’s perspective and, in doing so, opts to show the brokenness and conflict that can be experienced by caregivers. Johnson’s skill as a director continues to improve as she becomes more invested in developing atmosphere for her actors to work within. For example, through her frequent use of bleached lighting, Johnson casts an utter bleakness upon the world that she’s created, visually demonstrating the idea that each day bleeds into the next. What’s more, this idea becomes pushed to the forefront when contrasted with the sharp, sleek colours in the production of the The Gordon Baker Show. Whereas Catherine’s world remains consistently out of control, the television studio is a world that thrives on it, dictating not only the appearance of their guest but how they experience emotions as well.
In addition, Johnson wisely gives her veteran cast the space they need to invest themselves into their characters. While Huffman’s performance shows off her veteran talent, it’s Phillips’ courageous performance as Catherine that carries the film. In an unbelievably raw performance, Phillips bravely shows the internal struggle between her daughterly-duty to care for her mother and the guilt she carries of her desire to be free from her.
For Catherine, each day is a battle as she is constantly tasked to prevent her mother from initiating any of her several different plans for taking her own life. For Catherine, this lifestyle has taken its toll on her soul as she struggles to recognize the boundaries of where her mother’s traumatic behaviour ends and she begins. (In fact, it’s interesting to note that even the film’s title is focused on Tammy’s character as opposed to Catherine’s journey. One can almost hear Catherine’s exasperation within it, as if she were exclaiming, “Tammy’s Always Dying!”) As a result, Catherine seems to have lost all sense of self-understanding. In short, her entire life’s purpose seems to be related to her mother’s safety. Living her life based on the names that she is given by others (or that she imagines herself), Catherine remains stunted in her personal and spiritual growth and happiness remains elusive to her.
Interestingly, the question of happiness itself lies at the centre of the film as well. Struggling to keep herself afloat, Catherine is on a quest not only to find herself but also what it means to experience any sense of joy. From sex to alcohol to fame, Catherine looks to any external source that may potentially give life to her soul. As such, without giving any spoilers, Catherine’s journey to self-discovery stems from her own courage to re-examine what she has. (Again, this remains a testament to Phillips’ work here as she is fully willing to let Catherine bare her soul onscreen on multiple occasions.)
While Tammy’s Always Dying is far from light-hearted (even with its more comedic moments), the film is definitely worth the time. Anchored by incredible performances by stars Huffman and Phillips, the film highlights the conflicted nature of caring for those you love when you lose yourself in the process.
To hear full audio of our interview with star Anastasia Phillips, click here.
Tammy’s Always Dying hits video on demand on Friday, May 1st, 2020..