TIFF 2019: ‘Tammy’s Always Dying’ Is a Condescending Piece of Poverty Porn

Directed by Amy Jo Johnson, Tammy’s Always Dying is a more complicated story than this film realizes. Tammy (Felicity Huffman) is a single mother in her fifties. Suffering from alcohol use disorder and depression, she lightens things up by “being a good time.” Tammy’s idea of spreading joy involves spending her welfare cheques on boozing and buying impractical gifts for her friends. However, whenever her money runs out, Tammy’s sadness overwhelms her, and she threatens to jump off a bridge.

It falls on Tammy’s adult daughter Cathy (Anastasia Phillips) to talk her mother down from these suicide attempts. But when Tammy is diagnosed with Stage Four cancer, everything gets worse. Soon after the diagnosis, Cathy receives the opportunity to better her circumstances by sharing the sordid details of her upbringing on a sleazy talk show. But should she sell out her mom to save herself?

While Phillips and Huffman give compelling performances, the film’s dismissal of Tammy as hopeless rankles.  I don’t object to representations of complicated women; I welcome candid explorations of families struggling to connect. However, Tammy’s Always Dying acts like its protagonist’s problems make her better off dead. Sure, Tammy is flawed. Sometimes she steals, and when drunk, her comments are scathing. However, the film problematically suggests, because Tammy’s stuck in a cycle of partying and poverty, the world would be better off without her. A more empathetic character examination would reveal how a cycle of poverty prevents someone like Tammy from receiving the help she needs…

Sarah Sahagian

Sarah Sahagian

Sarah Sahagian is a feminist writer based in Toronto. Her byline has appeared in such publications as Elle Canada, Flare, Bitch Media, The Toronto Star, and The National Post. She is also the co-host of You Do You: A Dating Podcast. Sarah holds a master’s degree in Gender Studies from The London School of Economics. You can find her on Twitter, where she posts about politics and live-tweets The Bachelor