SXSW 2017 Review | The Fraud Life of ‘Mommy Dead and Dearest’

Erin Lee Carr's documentary exposes an unthinkable tale of murder, deception, sex and abuse... but to what end?

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

It is said, early in the documentary Mommy Dead and Dearest, that this is not a tabloid story. It is a tale of murder, deception, sex and abuse in a seemingly wholesome family, but it is not a tabloid story. It leaves you covered in the filth of grotesque domestic tragedy, but it is not a tabloid story.

But what could it possibly be…?

Mommy Dead and Dearest is the true tale of Dee Dee Blanchard and her daughter, Gypsy Rose, who lived in Springfield, Missouri. Poor young Gypsy Rose was in a wheelchair, a paraplegic victim of chronic illness, a girl undergoing constant surgeries. She is looked upon with kindness and sympathy by everybody around her. And then Gypsy Rose and her boyfriend Nicholas Godejohn murdered Dee Dee in the night. Oh and by the way, Gypsy Rose could walk.

The saga of the Blanchard family is such a vortex of deception and cruelty that a documentary was all but inevitable. Under the direction of Erin Lee Carr (Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop) we are guided in one direction, then we fall through the floorboards into another layer of suburban hell, and we keep on walking until the ground gives way again. Expectations are subverted, truths are exposed as lies, and we discover just how thoroughly our society can fail its weakest members. Doctors, family members, and institutions all fell for Dee Dee Blanchard’s confidence game, and Gypsy Rose – guilty though she may be – is clearly the product of constant and unthinkable psychological abuse.

HBO

HBO

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But showing us that there are rats in the walls is one thing. Doing something about them is another. Frankly, Mommy Dead and Dearest works very well as tabloid journalism. It’s a disturbing piece of true crime showmanship, a sickening wakeup call that the people around us may be monsters (or worse, that wittingly or otherwise, we might be monsters ourselves). The question is, what happens now? What do we actually do about it?

Mommy Dead and Dearest doesn’t show us every side of this story – what documentary ever does? – but the omissions are relevant. We learn precious little about how the hospitals, charities and institutions responded to the shocking revelations that Gypsy Rose was treated, invasively and repeatedly, for medical conditions that she didn’t actually have. Gypsy Rose’s boyfriend, Nicholas Godejohn, gives no new interviews and appears almost entirely in transcriptions of online messages and in his police footage. Accusations are made about his character, perhaps accurately, but without enough context to sufficiently sell the argument one way or the other.

Without a harsher look at the external forces at play, the sorts of forces that the audience could theoretically do something about – like hold these institutions responsible, for example – all we have is a twisted look at twisted people. So we twist with them. We pivot to get a good long gander. We’re fascinated and probably somewhat ashamed. Their story has been exposed and it has been presented, but perhaps a few more pieces of documentation would have made more of a difference.

Mommy Dead and Dearest is an engrossingly gross documentary, human in its tragedy, inhuman in its discoveries. You might not get much more out of it than a disquieting reminder that your neighborhood could be hiding demons. Perhaps that’s enough.

Perhaps.

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William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.