Review: ‘Mommy Dead and Dearest’

Hot Docs 2017

5 mins read

Mommy Dead and Dearest
(USA, 82 min.)
Dir. Erin Lee Carr
Programme: Special Presentations (International Premiere)


Fans of true crime must see Mommy Dead and Dearest. If documentaries such as Amanda Knox, The Imposter and OJ: Made in America chilled and enthralled you, Mommy is for you. This doc tells one twisted tale. One might not believe Mommy Dead and Dearest if it were an episode of Law & Order or CSI, but the interviews that director Erin Lee Carr gets from her subjects, particularly from the killer, offer more unexpected reveals than a writer of TV drama could imagine. It’s the kind of story that shakes one’s faith in humanity.

The grisly crime involves a young girl, her lover and her mother. The girl, Gypsy Rose, allegedly seduced her boyfriend into killing her mother. Facebook posts and messages reveal a premeditated crime laced with BDSM, role-play and manipulation, as if Gypsy Rose and her boyfriend were getting off on the plan for months. Gruesome crime scene photos show that Gypsy’s mom, Dee Dee, died a terrible, brutal and violent death. But make no mistake—Gypsy turns out to be a true victim of the tale.

Carr treads a risky tightrope act as Mommy Dead and Dearest takes its first twist among many when the narrative shifts its focus from Gypsy to Dee Dee. The question of Mommy isn’t whether Gypsy wanted to butcher her mother but why the girl wanted her parent dead. Look closer at the family photos, however, and the escape plan seems to have been a long time coming.

The doc reveals a mother-daughter con team in which Dee Dee paraded Gypsy around like an invalid. Archival images and testimonies from duped parties recall the family collecting donations and goodwill from friends, neighbours, doctors and charities who thought that wheelchair-bound Gypsy suffered from a series of severe disabilities including cancer, developmental disorders, muscular dystrophy and a potpourri of ailments too long to list. The story darkens and the interviewees in Mommy Dead and Dearest say with unwavering unanimity that Dee Dee wrought her own death. Even her stepmother says she got what she deserved.

Carr unfurls a seedy story of child abuse and exploitation. Gypsy’s basically a hostage in her own home, drugged and duped into thinking she’s ill. Old doctors’ reports reveal that practitioners were onto Dee Dee’s game, noting flaws in her stories and evidence of Munchhausen syndrome by proxy recognising that the mother was fabricating her daughter’s illness to play caregiver and keep her under control. In each case, however, the doc shows that anyone who saw the signs and could have intervened chose to look the other way. As one empathetic reporter concludes, the system utterly failed Gypsy Rose.

When Carr lets Gypsy speak for herself—and the filmmaker gets a doozy of an interview from the young woman that completely shuffles the deck and alters the way one perceives right and wrong—one cannot help but sympathise with this cold killer who saw murder as the only means to escape. Gypsy’s story is at its most disarming when it comes from her own voice, for one sees the conflicting range of intelligence in her head: she’s sharp and quick, but has the literal intelligence of a second grader due to Dee Dee’s charade that had her act over a decade younger than she actually was. Her emotions are a mix of regret and relief. She doesn’t like what she did but she knows she had to do it.

It’s in this element that Mommy Dead and Dearest puts the viewer on edge. Carr objectively presents the aggravating and mitigating factors to weigh the cases against Gypsy Rose and Dee Dee, both of whom are victims and guilty parties. The film lets one recognise the brutality of the crime while finding empathy for the killer. Was justice served on both sides?

Mommy Dead and Dearest screens:
-Sunday, April 30 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema at 9:30 PM
-Monday, May 1 at TIFF Lightbox at 1:30 PM
-Saturday, May 6 at TIFF Lightbox at 8:45 PM

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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