“Tammy’s Always Dying” is about rising above the things holding you down — even if you love them.
The film’s depiction of the Canadian town of Hamilton, just outside Toronto, is as cold, miserable and dingy as the cloud hanging over Catherine (Anastasia Phillips). Catherine is a bartender with few prospects but a willingness to work and save. But can she free herself from the yoke of Tammy, her alcoholic, casually abusive mother (Felicity Huffman)? Like clockwork, when Tammy’s welfare funds run out at the end of each month, it falls to Catherine to talk her out of killing herself.
Tammy’s cycle of moods restarts: After one such suicide prevention they visit a diner, where she sunnily proclaims, “I’ll treat!”
Catherine says, “With what money?”
Tammy smiles and reassures: “I’ll pay you back when I get my check.”
When feeling less sunny, Tammy’s abuse takes the form of bruising one-liners: “Name one thing you’re good at” and “We’re nothing people.” She’s a weight around her daughter’s neck, keeping her from leaving town, keeping her from standing up as straight as she might.
Bound by duty and her attachment to a worthy father figure (the engaging Clark Johnson), Catherine is looking at a bleak existence until a hard turn in her family’s fortunes gives her the chance to reinvent herself. But is the gravity of her mother too great for her to achieve escape velocity?
Directed by Amy Jo Johnson (yes, she of “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” fame), “Tammy’s Always Dying” is a richly observed comedy-drama. Johnson’s direction is intelligent and restrained. She trusts her actors, letting us see moments develop among them. She brings a relaxed, offhand touch to revealing information, as when she marks the passage of time by the cupboards emptying as the sink fills with dishes.
Joanne Sarazen’s script is likewise smart, dotted with low-key zingers and bon mots such as, “You can never see what’s broken in a happy person.”
Phillips is a Canadian TV veteran who entirely sells Catherine’s plight. You believe her as she spins her wheels, wondering if there’s ever going to be more than this. Huffman’s vanity-free performance balances charm and toxicity.
As the father-figure character tells Catherine, urging her to put aside her legitimate hurts and dreams for herself to tend to an extremely difficult familial duty: “This is about the woman you’ll become when this is all over.”
To which Catherine responds, “What about the woman I am now?”
‘TAMMY’S ALWAYS DYING’
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Playing: Available on VOD