' ' Cinema Romantico: Mommy Dead and Dearest

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Mommy Dead and Dearest

In watching Erin Lee Carr’s HBO documentary “Mommy Dead and Dearest”, which recounts the 2015 murder of Dee Dee Blancharde of which her teenage daughter Gypsy Rose emerged as the prime suspect, my mind kept flashing back to Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures” (1994). Partially that was because the latter centered on the true life story of Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, two 1950s New Zealand teenage girls who murdered Parker’s mother. Jackson, however, narrativized their story by honing in on the alternate reality that the girls constructed, plunging us so deep into these fantasies alongside the girls that you were terrifyingly able to grasp why they were driven to such madness. Carr’s documentarian approach, on the other hand, ensures that we stand outside the story of Gypsy Rose, rendering the scarily absurd turns her story takes in the starkest terms imaginable rather than the most fantastical, leaving us with less understanding than incomprehension.

“Mommy Dead and Dearest” opens with footage of Gypsy Rose being interrogated by a detective. He asks if she killed her mother. “No sir,” says Gypsy Rose. And for a moment, the documentary suggests the recent rush of true crime episodic investigative journalism, a lengthy working through with various sides weighed to try and get to the bottom of Who Did It? as Carr occasionally ruminates on What It All Means. But while Carr’s voice is occasionally heard on the other end of interviews asking questions, she is generally at a remove, because the actual content of the documentary, so distressing and difficult to believe, is enough. And Carr does not string out the answer of Who Did It? No, it does not take long to incriminate Gypsy Rose and her boyfriend Nicholas Godejohn because they so easily incriminated themselves. Still, in the aftermath of their guilt even more polarizing questions emerge, such as the possibility of homicide being justifiable.

Gypsy Rose quite plainly appeared to be a victim of Munchausen by proxy, which both Gypsy Rose’s public defender and doctors interviewed cite. That is to say, Dee Dee kept her daughter drugged which she indicated was necessary because of a laundry list of physical ailments from which Gypsy Rose suffered, though all these ailments turned out to be make-believe, a fantasy concocted by a mother to keep her child trapped in what amounted to never-ending infancy, holding Gypsy Rose hostage as a means to foster a semi-celebrity lifestyle, glimpsed in home videos. That Dee Dee was able to pull this off, carting her to different doctors and changing her stories, which medical records seen on camera bear out, speaks to a stunning failure of the medical system. A pediatric neurologist interviewed actually seems to have seen through the ruse, but states that he failed to follow up because he knew the fiscal and promotional gain from too many in the medical community would nevertheless overrule the little girl’s well-being. You might wish that Carr pressed some of these ignorers on camera, but the proof of their negligence is in where it all went wrong anyway, which was Gypsy Rose deciding her only way out was by turning to murder.

She achieved this goal with help from Godejohn, whom she meets online and who suffers from his own mental ailments, seen principally in police interrogation where he sounds perfectly calm. Their online relationship delved into role-playing and while being questioned he almost comes across like he’s playing another role. And if initially “Mommy Dead and Dearest” hints at Godejohn as something more than a mere accomplice, Carr doubles back to raise the possibility that Gypsy Rose, raised in environment where her mother’s manipulation was all she knew, may have manipulated Godejohn.

That’s almost impossible to pin down, where no matter how reflective and polite Gypsy Rose might come across in jailhouse interviews you are still left wondering about the purity of her motives, if this is all an opportunity to save some sort of face. Perhaps it’s not and Carr, frankly, doesn’t claim to know and, as per her un-intrusive presence, leaves it up in the air, underlining the unfathomable psychology lingering behind the whole affair. Though that’s not to say that “Mommy Dead and Dearest” is without any semblance of hard-won hope as Gypsy Rose’s father Rod, who married Dee Dee when he got her pregnant and then divorced her early on because it clearly was not meant to be, emerges as the film’s sympathetic through-line. Re-married, he has a sad smile as he and his wife talk through where his daughter wrong, what they might have done different and whether it would have mattered. It’s hard to know honestly, just as it’s hard to know with Gypsy Rose what’s true and what’s not. Still, the not knowing is what makes it so moving that Rod strives to form a new bond despite so much sordid history.

In a film that features the worst of humanity, it is moving to see someone wanting to believe the best.


Alex Withrow said...

Great review here. This thing was such a doozy, holy hell. I first heard about the story on the Sword and Scale podcast (don't know if you listen to that, but wow), and it was interesting to see the subjects on screen.

Nick Prigge said...

Somehow I'd missed this whole story. Watching the movie, my jaw kept dropping. And I know that sounds like some horrible fake pull quote but it's true! My jaw kept dropping!