I was having the weirdest dream about my mother, Jonathan Caouette tells us and his boyfriend David in Tarnation‘s opening scene.

He has dreamt his schizophrenic mother Renee has overdosed on lithium back home in Texas. And things don’t look good. Only this is no dream or nightmare, this is real.

Welcome to the world of 31-year-old filmmaker Jonathan Caouette, whose convention-bending cinematic memoir was last week branded virtuosic and a milestone of cinema by Lynden Barber, artistic director of the Sydney Film Festival.

Tarnation blew everyone away at Cannes and the Sundance festival for its frank telling of Caouette’s fractured Texan upbringing.

He began documenting his life and that of his dysfunctional but loving family on a borrowed video camera when he was 11 years old -“ and he just kept going.

Part home movie, part horror film, music clip and audition tape, Tarnation would easily qualify as the most engaging and accessible experimental work on the festival circuit. It’s not bad for a film cut on his boyfriend’s iMac with a post-production budget of $US218.32.

All is documented in scratchy, blurred, richly warped footage cut with the sensibility of a post-modern post-punk queer: his mother’s chronic mental illness, his abuse in foster care and eventual adoption by his maternal grandparents Adolph and Rosemary, coming out and the alternative gay culture he immersed himself in, his move to New York City and the establishment of a long-term relationship with boyfriend David Sanin Paz.

Caouette had over 160 hours of home movie footage on hand and thankfully cut in a handful of remarkable testimonials, including one of himself at age 11.

Bedecked in wig and makeup, the kid Caouette puts on an astounding turn as a tortured southern belle in the grip of domestic violence and, while he does give new meaning to the term drama queen, it’s painful to see a kid so young so stripped of innocence.

Tarnation also deals with the teenage onset of his own mental illness -“ depersonalisation is a disorder that gives the feeling of detachment from your own body, thought, even your life.

So Caouette infuses his memoir with a dreamlike quality that lends a sort of hazy unreliability. Is this what actually happened or did I dream this?

The subjective storytelling style is meant to mimic Caouette’s own thought processes and give the audience an insight into what it’s like to live with his disorder.

Tarnation is one of the most killer flicks that will be missed by most cinema-goers. Don’t let its experimental edge scare you away. There’s plenty of gripping drama as Tarnation plumbs the depths of dysfunction in the modern family.

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