At the bar Tammy (Felicity Huffman) is what’s known as a character. “I’m not a good person,” she says. “I’m a good time.” She’s always the life of the party, with a drink in her hand and a quip on her lips. When she’s too broke to afford booze she’s making her daughter Kathy’s (Anastasia Phillips) life miserable. Every month, when the money from her welfare cheque has run dry, Tammy goes through the same charade of marching down to the local bridge with the intention of ending it all. Kathy inevitably comes to the rescue and life goes on, repeating the cycle day in and out.
Kathy’s only respite from her mother’s lifestyle is a game of make believe she plays with her boss and old family friend, Doug (Clark Johnson). The two get dolled up, head to a fancy city bar and role play, pretending to be other, happier people. Their friendly bartender Jamie (Kristian Bruun) is in on the joke, and always goes along for the ride.
Just when it seems that Kathy is able to step away from the shadow of her mother’s influence, Tammy is diagnosed with terminal cancer. As a caregiver she’s drawn back into Tammy’s chaotic orbit but salvation may be around the corner. Television host Gordon Baker (Ali Hassan), a mix-and-match of Jerry Springer and Dr. Phil, is interested in the trashy aspects of Kathy’s story, and if she tells it well enough—with tears and all—he’s willing to make it worth her while.
“Tammy’s Always Dying” is a compelling character study anchored by remarkable performances. Huffman, almost unrecognizable as the narcissistic title character, makes sure that Tammy isn’t just a drunken spectacle, staggering through the film with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other. She brings humanity to a character who could have been a foul-mouthed Foster Brooks style caricature. As Kathy, Phillips finds the balance between heartfelt love for her mother and hatred for the way she has been treated. It’s a tricky balance but Phillips finds it in a carefully calibrated performance that generates much sympathy as Kathy carves a future for herself despite dire circumstances.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Bruun and Johnson provide a respite from the misery, giving the film two characters who try and improve Kathy’s life without controlling her.
In the hands of actor-turned-director Amy Jo Johnson (working from a script by Joanne Sarazen) “Tammy’s Always Dying” transcends poverty porn by presenting characters whose struggles feel real and fully realized. It’s a tough talking movie—“Killing herself would be the least selfish thing she’s ever done!”—that, underneath its bluster, has a tender beating heart.