I watched “Tierney Gearon: The Mother Project” on Sundance last night, unprepared for its intensity. It was described as a documentary about a model-turned-photographer who takes pictures of her schizophrenic mother.
Like “Tarnation,” it sucked me in from the very beginning. It only took a few minutes for me to form the opinion that Tierney Gearon is just as crazy as her 64 year old mother, if not more so. She gets her mother to stand outside in the freezing snow, wildly taking snapshots as the older woman pleads to go back inside.
Watching this documentary is excruciating but endlessly fascinating. It forces one to confront ideas about motherhood, family, mental illness, and exploitation.
Tierney wants to be a good mother, but when her child sobs, her instinct is to photograph him rather than comfort him. She literally uses her new baby as a prop. But she clearly enjoys an intimacy with her children that is really extraordinary. She speaks to them honestly, and joyously takes part in their games, even when it means letting them jump over her as she lays on the grass, hugely pregnant.
Tierney’s mother is a vibrant old lady who lives alone in a ramshackle house and occasionally lashes out at her manipulative daughter. At one point she screams at Tierney, “I gave you everything! All my love and my beauty! But you won’t help me, you bitch!” It’s a moment of bitter raw emotion, which cuts to the heart of the matter, I think.
Mothers who do their best are still not good enough, and crazy mothers leave their mark. Craziness runs through Tierney Gearon’s family like a virus, but she doesn’t see it. I worry for her three kids, who will undoubtedly struggle with her craziness and their own, in the end. They will probably become parents of crazy children. Nature loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger. In this family, like so many, the trigger is pulled over and over.
The photos that made Tierney a figure of controversy are beautiful and disturbing. It’s hard to see how they could have been considered pornographic. But she does manage to imbue her pictures with an ineffable weirdness that makes a family picnic look like a satanic ritual. She seems like a courageous survivor who would eat her own kids if they got stranded on a desert island.
Watch this movie if you’re up to it. You can buy it on Amazon.com.