Toronto 2019: Tammy’s Always Dying

Felicity Huffman and Anastasia Phillips in Amy Jo Johnson's Tammy's Always Dying. Courtesy of TIFF.

Amy Jo Johnson’s sophomore feature, Tammy’s Always Dying, follows a working-class daughter as she cares for her alcoholic mother.

Catherine “Cathy” MacDonald (Anastasia Phillips) works at a hotel bar to make ends meet.  When she isn’t doing this, she is taking care of her alcoholic mother, Tammy (Felicity Huffman).  It isn’t the best way to go about life but Cathy does her best.  At the bar, Cathy has the freedom to be whoever she wants to be while working for a longtime family friend, Doug (Clark Johnson).  Oh yeah, thing that nobody can forget: Tammy is always trying to jump off the bridge on the 29th day of every month.  The reason for this is because the welfare check runs out.  Cathy is the one who is always there to prevent her from killing herself.

Nearly a third of the way into the film, we get some very bad news.  Dr. Miller (Ayesha Mansur Gonsalves) informs Tammy MacDonald that she has stage four cancer and unfortunately, it’s spread to her liver.  The doctor gives her six to ten more months to live.  Tammy’s bad habits have finally caught up with her.  This is only going to increase the burden on Cathy.  Cathy moves in with her so as to make these final months as comfortable as possible.

While most of the plot deals with Tammy’s health issues, another part deals with Cathy being selected as a guest on The Gordon Baker Show to discuss her suicidal mother.  Coaching her through the appearance is Ilana Wiseman (Lauren Holly).  Gordon Baker (Ali Hassan) is a stand-in for the likes of Jerry Springer given how much of the show seems to be scripted.  Ilana is invested in Cathy’s future.

Between cinematographer Daniel Grant and production designer Marian Wihak, the film certainly has a working-class vibe to it.  We can see this by way of the locations that are featured on screen.  The bridge in and of itself is certainly a character in its own right.  The future looks bleak, which may help explain why Tammy is always trying to end her life.

In some ways, Johnson gives herself less work on the sophomore flick.  For The Space Between, not only did she act but she also wrote this screenplay.  For this film, Johnson directs from a script by Joanne Sarazen.  She gets solid performances out of the cast.  Felicity Huffman isn’t the only veteran actor here as Homicide: Life in the Street veteran Clark Johnson has some fun in his supporting role.

Tammy’s Always Dying is about a mother-daughter relationship at its core.

DIRECTOR:  Amy Jo Johnson
SCREENWRITER:  Joanne Sarazen
CAST: Felicity Huffman, Anastasia Phillips, Lauren Holly, Kristian Bruun, Jessica Greco, Aaron Ashmore, and Clark Johnson

Tammy’s Always Dying holds its world premiere during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival in the Contemporary World Cinema program. Grade: 4/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.