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Review: Tammy’s Always Dying

May 1, 2020

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

In the opening scene of the dark Canadian dramedy Tammy’s Always Dying, we cut back and forth between a pair of legs wearing torn stockings and high heels walking along a bridge over the train tracks, as a woman drives frantically through the streets of Hamilton before coming to confront her.

The woman on the bridge is Tammy MacDonald (Felicity Huffman), and the woman in the car is her adult daughter, Catherine (Anastasia Phillips), and we soon find out that the situation we are witnessing is a monthly occurrence.

You see, on the 29th of every month, when the money from her welfare cheque runs out, the alcoholic Tammy attempts to throw herself off of the same bridge and end her life once and for all, sending her daughter on a mad dash to rescue her. This toxic, co-dependent relationship between mother and daughter provides the driving force of Tammy’s Always Dying, the second feature from actor turned filmmaker Amy Jo Johnson, which is being released digitally today after premiering at TIFF last year.

Neither Tammy nor Catherine have ended where they wanted to be in life. Tammy is an impoverished drunk who never moved past her freewheeling party girl faze to make anything of her life. Meanwhile, Catherine is stuck working a dead end job in a bar, her only refuge being the weekend trips to Toronto that she takes with the bar’s manager, Doug (Clark Johnson), her mother’s gay best friend from back in the day who acts like a surrogate father figure to her.

But things take a turn when Tammy is diagnosed with terminal cancer and refuses treatment, and Catherine is suddenly faced with the imminent demise of the woman that she pulls off the bridge once a month. Deeper still is Catherine’s sense of guilt that comes from realizing that her mother is the one who has made her life so difficult, and that maybe things will be easier once she is no longer around, a hard, bitter truth that isn’t lost on Tammy.

There is a subplot involving Catherine trying to get on a daytime television show hosted by a Dr. Phil-type man named Gordon Baker (Ali Hassan) that feels somewhat rushed and underdeveloped, and the film sometimes struggles to find the right tonal balance between dark comedy and sincere character drama. But Joanne Sarazin’s script does have the guts if you will to go to some uncomfortable emotional places in a way that feels stripped bare and unsentimental, as it confronts the often painful fact that you can’t help someone unless they want to be helped.

While Tammy’s Always Dying has a sort of griminess to it that isn’t always pleasant to watch, and the story features a number of clichés, the film gets by thanks to its strong acting. Huffman and Phillips are both very good here in emotionally raw performances, as are Johnson and Canadian actor Kristian Bruun, in a small role as the server at a high-end hotel bar. Their work is what collectively makes this small dramedy worth checking out.

Tammy’s Always Dying is now available to watch on a variety of Digital and Video On Demand platforms across Canada.

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