This was originally published out of SXSW. Mommy Dead and Dearest is now on HBO, HBO Go and HBO Now.
In June of 2015, Dee Dee Blanchard was found murdered in her home, her daughter Gypsy Rose missing and troubling messages left on their shared Facebook page. Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose were beloved in their community, a moving story of a mother and daughter thriving in the face of inexhaustible bad luck. Gypsy Rose was diagnosed with leukemia and muscular dystrophy. She was paralyzed from the waist down and suffered from epilepsy and intellectual disabilities. Dee Dee cared for her tirelessly, raising money for Gypsy Rose’s never-ending medical expenses.
Except it was all a scam. That June, Gypsy Rose walked into the sheriff’s station for questioning in her mother’s death. That’s right. She walked.
Mommy Dead and Dearest examines a case of such unlikely twists and turns that it would be nearly impossible to follow if not for director Erin Lee Carr’s fastidious and sound reporting. Through family interviews, home videos, medical records, police interrogation footage and IM histories between Gypsy and her secret online boyfriend, himself a walking mystery worthy of his own documentary, Mommy Dead and Dearest reveals an astonishing amount of access to a case more shocking and unnerving than the best fiction has to offer. This feels like a Gillian Flynn novel – Sharp Objects, specifically – but it’s real, and it’s worse.
Beyond the labyrinthine murder mystery, Mommy Dead and Dearest is a harrowing portrait of abuse. The better we get to know Dee Dee, the more we fear her. The film offers a rare representation of what appears to be pure evil. Dee Dee’s own family uses the word again and again to describe her. Her past is peppered with heinous acts and sociopathic self-absorption.
Gypsy Rose, for all of the suspicion surrounding her, is without a doubt a victim, a 23-year-old woman forced into perpetual youthfulness, forced to suppress her budding sexuality in favor of yellow sundresses and princess wigs. Forced to sit in a wheelchair when she could walk. But Mommy Dead and Dearest offers no certain answer to the question of who Gypsy Rose truly is. Merely a victim, or a willing participant in her mother’s deception? Is she deceiving us even now, now that Dee Dee no longer holds sway over her?
Mommy Dead and Dearest approaches every angle of this case with clear-eyed precision, and the result is riveting and profound. Carr is a filmmaker to follow.