A Suspiciously Dead Father, a Disorderly Dying Mother, and a Wistfully Animated Journey into India

Tammy’s Always Dying

Tammy MacDonald (Felicity Huffman) is a mess.  Alcoholic, unemployed, a compulsive shoplifter, and near the end of every month, like clockwork, she tries to jump off the bridge near her home.  Tammy’s daughter Catherine (Anastasia Phillips) tries her best to keep her grounded and safe, but as anyone who has had to deal with a troubled friend or family member can attest, that can become an increasingly difficult burden to bear (especially when, as is the case with Tammy and Catherine, their relationship was never healthy to begin with).  Then Tammy is diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, and it all gets worse.

Amy Jo Johnson’s sophomore feature (following The Space Between in 2017) is an at times pitch black comedy-drama about grief and trauma and trying to do right by yourself and your family.  Catherine tries to have a life of her own when she’s not dealing with her mother:  she works at the local bar, has sex with a (married) friend, and occasionally drives to Toronto to role play being an exotic tourist at a hotel bar.  She also has an affinity for trashy local TV, especially a talk show where the host speaks to his guests about their family trauma, with a focus on people who have lost abusive parents.  Tammy, for her part, is constantly caught between trying to improve herself and succumbing to her worst impulses (best demonstrated in a scene that begins with her deciding to clean up the house and ends with her stealing the cash Catherine had hidden away in her dresser drawer).  Felicity Huffman may be something of a liability for the movie from a PR standpoint right now, but as an actress she’s still first rate.  There’s no vanity or ostentatiousness in her performance, either before or after the character has been diagnosed with cancer.

Matching her beat for beat is Anastasia Phillips (Skins, Reign) who smartly refuses to play her part for sympathy.  Catherine might be better than her mother, but that doesn’t mean she is a nice person.  When Phillips and Huffman play off of each other, it rings almost uncomfortably true.  You can feel the history between them, and in scenes where Tammy makes a joke to Catherine about something in their past only for Catherine to reveal that it was a source of emotional pain for it, the pain feels real and you squirm in your seat because you don’t know if you are supposed to laugh or cry.

The tonal balancing act Amy Jo Johnson accomplishes here is really quite remarkable… any movie that is able to successfully pull off a scene where a character looks on in horror when they’re told that the cancer treatments are doing their job unusually well is something to be commended.  Even the scenes satiric scenes involving the TV show (with such taglines as “Your Trauma Can Have Value!”) hit their marks not because of how outrageous they seem, but because they ring entirely true. What’s it like for people to make small talk backstage when they’re about to reveal their traumas to a live studio audience?  What happens when an interviewee isn’t able to cry on cue, and the producers have to find other avenues to make the story compelling?  These are things that obviously have to be part of these shows, but how often do we really think about them?

There are lots of comedies about death, and lots of stories where illnesses are used as vehicles to explore family dysfunction.   But rarely are they done as sensitively as in Tammy’s Always Dying.

Kevin’s 2019 TIFF ranking

  1. Knives Out
  2. The Personal History of David Copperfield
  3. Blood Quantum
  4. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
  5. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
  6. Tammy’s Always Dying
  7. Bombay Rose
  8. Jallilkattu
  9. Bring Me Home
  10. Hearts and Bones