In Amy Jo Johnson’s latest feature Tammy’s Always Dying, Kathy MacDonald (Anastasia Phillips) and her alcoholic mother Tammy (Felicity Huffman) have spent years locked in an unhealthy relationship. Tammy stays in a perpetually inebriated state until, like clockwork, she crashes into brief sobriety towards the end of the month. It is at that point where Kathy must swoop in and, literally, talk her mother of the ledge.
Constantly tending to her mother’s suicidal attempts and reckless activities has left Kathy little time to work on her own shambled personal life. Sleeping with a married man, Reggie (Aaron Ashmore), and driving a car that should have been sent to the scrapyard years ago, Kathy longs for a change. Her only bit of solace comes from her trips to the city with Doug (Clark Johnson), the owner of the bar she works at and her mom’s only real friend. Going for drinks at their favourite hotel bar, Kathy and Doug role play to forget the troubles of their small-town life.
These jaunts may provide a temporary reprieve, but do not erase the harsh realities of Kathy’s bleak circumstance. A fact that is emphasized when Tammy is diagnosed with cancer and Kathy must move in with her to ease the financial strain. Torn between the compassion she has for her ailing mother and the frustration brought out by Tammy’s abrasive personality, Kathy struggles to stay afloat in an environment that is easy to drown in. When an unexpected financial life raft arises, in the form of a sleazy talk show that thrives on the trauma of others, Kathy jumps at the opportunity despite the moral cost that will come with it.
Walking a fine line between drama and dark comedy, Tammy’s Always Dying always feels one step away from its own drunken stumble. Thankfully, Johnson’s tale of dysfunctional family bonds is filled with plenty of emotion and genuine heart to keep it standing up right. Part of the reason the film succeeds is due to the strong performances by Huffman and Phillips.
As Tammy, Huffman brings both a wild child flare and piercing sadness to the character. Though Tammy may act like she is the life of a party only she is attending, Huffman exquisitely captures the vice-like grip addiction can have over an individual. Huffman’s work is enhanced by Phillips’ complex and effective turn as Kathy. Often having to be the straight woman to Huffman’s at times comical antics, Phillips brings rich layers to Kathy. While Tammy may be the titular character it is Kathy’s plight that carries the film.
Although Johnson gets rich performances from her leads and ensemble cast, there are moments when the pacing does not flow as smoothly as it could. At times Tammy’s Always Dying attempts to bite off more than it can chew. The script by Joanne Sarazen is bursting with ideas, but there is simply not enough time to explore them all. A perfect example of this is the subplot involving The Gordon Baker Show and its drama inducing producer Ilana Wiseman (Lauren Holly). While this thread is ripe with commentary about the exploitative nature of media, it doesn’t land the way Johnson hopes. It plays like an unnecessary speed bump in Kathy’s overall journey.
These blips aside, Johnson’s sophomore film solidifies her as a director whose potential is only scratching the surface. Much like its protagonist, Tammy’s Always Dying is at times funny, touching and messy. In other words, it captures the complexities of life and familial bonds in an honest way.
Tammy’s Always Dying arrives on Digital and On Demand on Friday May 1st.