Director: Jonathan Caouette
Screenwriters: Jonathan Caouette

Institute History

  • 2004 Sundance Film Festival


Jonathan Caouette's brutal and spellbinding musical docudrama Tarnation defies categorization. Part documentary, part narrative fiction, part home movie, part acid trip, this completely original debut is breathtaking and establishes Caouette as a cinematic visionary to reckon with.

Caouette has been documenting his life since he was 11 years old. With Tarnation, he weaves a psychedelic whirlwind of snapshots, Super-8 home movies, old answering machine messages, video diaries, early short films, snippets of '80s pop culture, and dramatic reenactments to create an epic portrait of an American family travesty. The story begins in 2003 when Jonathan learns that his schizophrenic mother, Renee, has overdosed on her lithium medication. He is catapulted back into his real and horrifying family legacy of rape, incest, abandonment, promiscuity, drug addiction, child abuse, and psychosis. As he grows up on camera, he finds the escapist balm of musical theater and B horror flicks and reconnects to life through a queer chosen family. Then the film hurdles forward through time into the future as Jonathan confronts the symbiotic and almost unbearable love he shares with his beautiful and tragically damaged mother.

A dazzling display of energy and visual splendor, Tarnation is a raw and sensual masterpiece of self-destruction and rebirth that announces the arrival of a new filmmaking talent.

— Shari Frilot

Screening Details

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