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Tarnation (2003)

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Filmmaker Jonathan Caouette's documentary on growing up with his schizophrenic mother -- a mixture of snapshots, Super-8, answering machine messages, video diaries, early short films, and more -- culled from 19 years of his life.


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Title: Tarnation (2003)

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11 wins & 6 nominations. See more awards »



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Cast overview, first billed only:
Renee Leblanc ...
Adolph Davis ...
Rosemary Davis ...
David Sanin Paz ...
Joshua Williams ...
Michael Cox ...
David Leblanc ...
Stacey Mowery ...
Michael Mouton ...
Greg Ayres ...
Himself (as Bam-Bam)
Vanda Stovall ...
Dagon James ...
Vivian Kalinov ...
Herself (as Girl in Student Film)
Steve Caouette ...


Part documentary, part narrative fiction, part home movie, and part acid trip. A psychedelic whirlwind of snapshots, Super-8 home movies, old answering machine messages, video diaries, early short films, snippets of '80s pop culture, and dramatic reenactments to create an epic portrait of an American family travesty. The story begins in 2003 when Jonathan learns that his schizophrenic mother, Renee, has overdosed on her lithium medication. He is catapulted back into his real and horrifying family legacy of rape, abandonment, promiscuity, drug addiction, child abuse, and psychosis. As he grows up on camera, he finds the escapist balm of musical theater and B horror flicks and reconnects to life through a queer chosen family. Then a look into the future shows Jonathan as he confronts the symbiotic and almost unbearable love he shares with his beautiful and tragically damaged mother. Written by Sujit R. Varma

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


Your greatest creation is the life you lead


Unrated | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:



Official Sites:



Release Date:

10 November 2004 (France)  »

Also Known As:

Kolastirio  »

Box Office


$218 (estimated)

Opening Weekend:

$12,740 (USA) (8 October 2004)


$592,014 (USA) (27 May 2005)

Company Credits

Show detailed on  »

Technical Specs



Sound Mix:



Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
See  »

Did You Know?


Was edited with Apple Computer's "iMovie" - a free DV editing program for Macintosh computers. See more »


[first lines]
Renee Leblanc: [singing] This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.
See more »


Features Free to Be... You & Me (1974) See more »


Strange Powers
Written by Stephin Merritt
Performed by The Magnetic Fields
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User Reviews

Your greatest creation is the life you lead.
3 June 2005 | by (Bookseller of the Blue Ridge) – See all my reviews

In the world of documentaries, Tarnation ranks among one of the best that I have seen. Sometimes with a low-budget outing it is hard to judge the quality of the final product, but Jonathan Caouette proves that he has a passion for the subject, a desire to tell his story and a know-how to bring his moments to life. With bold music (that nearly grips your heart at every turn) and an Andy Warhol style of imagery, Caouette pulls us deep within his life and shows us his life unfiltered. Using just his computer, he builds the story of his life using scenes taken from nineteen years in front (and behind) the camera. It reminded me of Capturing the Friedmans, except with more heart and soul. We are taken through a broad range of emotions which include fear, surprise, excitement, and distraught as we witness the decline of our narrator. Tarnation is a man's bold expression to tell the story of his life, and for me, it worked wonders on my soul and mind.

What makes Caouette's documentary impressive is that you sometimes forget that he is the one creating the masterpiece. Since he is in front of the camera from a young age until thirty years later, it is easy for one to forget that he is creating these images for us. I think that is important for us to remember because he places every snapshot, every audio, and every snippet of video in the film to show a purpose. While we all can watch the film and derive our purpose or point about the film (which is what makes cinema amazing), I saw it as this very sad and vicious circle of life. Mother lives with parents, who are mentally unstable, she eventually is that way as well, which then slowly translates onto her son. It is a sad and destructive cycle that happens daily in America as well as around the world. It is a central focus to many of our films and media, the idea that if you grow up in an environment of chaos, you will eventually create that same chaos years later. It is a wild thought that can be visually seen in the film Tarnation.

Outside of the broad range of emotions that were surging through me while I watched this riveting piece of art, there were some elements that I just thought were bold, creative, and extremely stylish. I loved the use of words to tell the story. Normally, in these documentaries you are forced to listen to that calming voice telling you what is happening, what did happen, and what will happen next. In this film, Caouette uses the typed words to give us both that sensation of neutrality (and sometimes numbness) and to honestly focus our attention towards the images on screen. There are times when the voice-over technique can become overpowering, and you begin to focus yourself onto the words of the narrator, instead of the events unfolding on screen. With the typed words from Caouette, we focus on him, his mother, and the environment that is imploding around him.

Also, the music. One cannot talk about this film without mentioning the soundtrack to this film. You know those moments where you need to express yourself and the only way that works is by making a mixed CD? Well, this is Caouette's mixed CD. The music choice for the film seemed to come from his heart, from his passion spawned this music. Not only was I listening to some great songs for the first time, but this was just another avenue for me to understand Jonathan and the world in which he resides. The music really help set the mood and tone for the entire film. It helped build the tension and give us that raw human emotion that built the foundation to this movie. Jonathan's mother was the main character of this film, then I would say that the music was the co-star. This film would not have been as effective if it wasn't for the amazing sound choices.

Finally, I would like to say that Caouette has built a masterpiece here. He has taken a personal story and created more emotions and personality than most Hollywood big budget productions could have. It was real. This is something that Hollywood continues to strive for, but cannot quite reach it. Caouette has, and I wouldn't be surprised if he did it again. I think what I loved so much about this film is that it is another story about our world. I don't think we see enough real-life stories about our neighbors and friends, but instead are bombarded with superficial heroes that are paid more money than we will ever see and somehow always win the perfect girl at the end. Happiness is not always the ending to every story.

Overall, I was impressed. This was an outstanding film that deserves every bit of recognition that is handed to it. Caouette has created a masterpiece and is changing with this film the face of documentaries. I expect to see rip-offs of this popping up in the near future. He inspires those of us who want to create our own stories to do so, and is a pioneer of the struggling filmmaker. I suggest this film to all my friends and family, not just for the cinematic pleasure that is contained in it, but also because Caouette could be the modern day Warhol … at least that is what I saw when I witnessed the power of this film. Wow.

Bravo Mr. Caouette, Bravo!!!

Grade: ***** out of *****

28 of 44 people found this review helpful.  Was this review helpful to you?

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