Tarnation (2003)

Unrated  |   |  Documentary, Biography  |  10 November 2004 (France)
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Ratings: 7.2/10 from 5,611 users   Metascore: 87/100
Reviews: 114 user | 72 critic | 32 from Metacritic.com

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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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


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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
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Did You Know?


It cost $218 to make but the budget rose to $400,000, once music and video clip royalties were included. See more »


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


References Carrie (1976) See more »


After Loving You
Written by Bobby Martin, Jean Wells and Jean Bailey
Performed by Jean Wells
See more »

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User Reviews

Some Experiments Fail Miserably
7 February 2004 | by (Salt Lake City, Utah) – See all my reviews

Dinking around on I-Movie with footage of yourself and airing your unsubstantiated gripes about your family doesn't impress me.

Despite the orgasmic gush of praise from EBAN & CHARLEY director Jimmy Bolton on this board, TARNATION is a languishing Narcissus Apocalypse.

As a documentary, it's frivolous. As an "experimental film," it accomplishes nothing. As a movie, it's just another cheap drama queen's primal screech for attention.

One of the laziest things a filmmaker can do is narrate. That's what Mr. Caouette does. He simply dinks around with footage of himself and types his "life story" as subtitles over the screen most of the time. Unfortunately, all we get is a vague impression of ways Caouette feels he's been a victim his whole life, without ever confronting his perpetrators satisfyingly.

By the end of the film, he confronts his mother and grandfather about their mentally questionable conspiracy theories, and they do seem to be crazy, but TARNATION never commits to or resolves any single question it asks. Mr. Caouette obviously has many deep resentments, but we never get the whole story by seeing the witnesses, alternatve viewpoints or details.

Caouette's narration and hearsay is completely useless to the audience. We don't learn a damn thing. TARNATION is just therapeutic venting for him. What's in it for us?

How about people that accuse TARNATION of being an experimental film?

Experimental films manipulate their mediums in exciting ways. TARNATION is merely a few command keys on I-Movie, not some innovative, new technique. It stretches thin footage out with Mickey Mouse editing gimmicks and adds music. So what?

A lot of "independently minded" filmmakers in the U.S. think that it's cool to be different.

They're wrong. It's only cool to be different if you have something exciting, functional and compelling to show for it.

That's why it's no surprise that John Cameron Mitchell and Gus Van Sant co- produced the film. Half the movies these guys make are trashed by critics and ignored by audiences, if not distributors and film festivals, too. Jimmy Bolton's movies were also complete crap that critics vanquished and audiences passed on.

Why does a queer clique with such quasi-famous people adore Jonathan Caouette and his vanity project TARNATION so much?

The answer is simple: Misery Loves Company.

12 of 18 people found this review helpful.  Was this review helpful to you?

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too hard on his grandparents? teejay6682
Distribution nikki1467
Soundtrack nanaplough
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