TIFF 2019: ‘Tammy’s Always Dying’

By: Trevor Chartrand

Former actress Amy Jo Johnson’s second directorial effort is Tammy’s Always Dying, an incredibly painful look at dysfunctional family dynamics.  The film explores the dark and unstable relationship between the understandably broken Catherine (Anastasia Phillips) and her suicidal mother Tammy (Felicity Huffman).

On a regular basis, Catherine finds herself on a train bridge, talking her alcoholic mother out of jumping to her death.  When Tammy is later diagnosed with cancer, Catherine finds herself with even more responsibility, forced to take care of her vindictive mother as she undergoes treatment.

The characters in this film are faced with a harsh reality, and there’s a very authentic sense of pain behind their eyes for the brutality they suffer.  The berated and downtrodden characters are constantly battling a vicious cycle: cruel treatment at the hands of others becomes their own cruel behavior in return – the only response they can muster.

In the film, Cathy longs for a better life, often playing various roles and personas in restaurants with her best friend Doug (Clark Johnson).  She’ll pretend to be a ‘higher functioning’ member of society, or rather, someone she perceives to be successful and happy.  With her mother’s illness comes her impending death, and Cathy soon sees a light at the end of her tunnel.  She applies to appear on a local daytime talk show, for her fifteen minutes of fame in exchange for her tragic story.

Writer Joanne Sarazen brings a lot of authenticity to this story, especially with the gritty and haunting dialogue.  The story is effectively laid out and the characters are especially strong, in both the loud and the quiet moments.  The script rides a fine line to provide enough sympathy for both characters: a mother plagued with guilt and regret at the end of her life, and the daughter who had to grow up too quickly in order to take care of her inept mother.  Both Catherine and Tammy are incredibly flawed, but also incredibly likable, and that’s a testament to strong writing combined with a talented cast.

Anastasia Phillips stands out considerably for her role as Catherine in this film.  Her emotions are always boiling under the surface, constantly in motion from moment to moment.  Her presence and focus in each scene is considerably powerful.  Huffman also turns in a great performance, however it is a little more one-note.  The angry alcoholic role doesn’t give her as many opportunities to show off the range we know she’s capable of.  Having said that, her commitment to the film is undeniable, with the actress going as far as shaving her head to become the character undergoing chemotherapy.

The direction and look of the film is solid and consistent, set among a bleak and crumbing municipality that reflects the mindset of most of the characters.  None of them are trailer trash, but many of them seem to be struggling to stay one step away from becoming just that.

Tammy’s Always Dying is a tragic drama with flickers of optimism, hope, and even reconciliation in its final moments.  The film answers the question of what happens to the kids who have to raise their own parents, and what their life becomes in the aftermath.  It’s not always easy to watch, and that’s most likely because of director Johnson’s realistic approach and her take on the script.  The sad truth behind the film’s story and themes is what makes Tammy’s Always Dying all too compelling.  This drama is a testament to the power of authenticity in storytelling and filmmaking.


Tammy’s Always Dying screens at TIFF on:

Saturday, September 14 at 1:00 p.m. @ Scotiabank Theatre

Rating: R
Language: English
Runtime: 85 minutes

For more information on the festival, visit the official TIFF webpage here.

Buy tickets here.

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Trevor Chartrand: @OhHaiTrebor

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