After chronicling one lurid real-life criminal case in “Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop,” producer-director Erin Lee Carr investigates another with “Mommy Dead and Dearest.” Her second feature for HBO Documentary Films (which makes its broadcast debut May 15) doesn’t have much to offer in the way of larger truths about societal issues or ailments. But it certainly does have a grotesque stranger-than-fiction tale to tell, one that will duly keep any viewer with an ambulance-chasing bone in their body somewhat guiltily riveted to the tube.
On June 13 2014 48-year-old Dee Dee Blanchard was stabbed to death in her bed in Springfield, Mo., police having been alerted by subsequent Facebook posts bragging about the killing —seemingly written by her own daughter, Gypsy Rose, who was considered missing at the time. Gypsy was soon found, however, having fled to Wisconsin with 25-year-old boyfriend Nicholas Godejohn. The two were arrested and charged with first-degree murder, Gypsy maintaining her innocence, and seemingly oblivious to the fact that various social-media messages incriminating them both would be easily accessed by the authorities.
But then, as bizarre background details began to surface, it became clear that “obliviousness” was but one likely result of the warped isolation Gypsy had been raised in by her late, divorced mother. Dee Dee (who some suspect caused the death of her own manipulative, thieving mother) was a devious wolf in cheerful sheep’s clothing. She’d left her native Louisiana when debts and petty crimes began to catch up with her, and when relatives (including ex-husband Rod) became too inquisitive about the state of Gypsy’s health, which was a very complex state, at least according to Dee Dee. The girl was indeed born with a chromosome disorder that hindered normal development. Yet no one but Dee Dee — not her highly supportive new Midwestern community nor even Gypsy herself — knew that she was kept in a state of extreme, false “disability” to generate sympathy and cash in what was eventually termed a long-term financial fraud scheme.
The upshot was that Gypsy grew up believing she had leukemia, muscular dystrophy, “retardation,” and myriad other conditions — necessitating a heavy regime of medications, some of which actually induced symptoms appropriate to the disorders doctors assumed they were treating. The only status Gypsy knew to be an outright fib was her supposed below-the-waist paralysis; though she could walk perfectly well, she was never seen without a wheelchair. Dee Dee’s textbook-case Munchausen syndrome by proxy (in which someone fabricates and/or triggers medical problems in another to gain attention) encompassed molding Gypsy as a near caricature of adorable childishness. Gypsy’s high-pitched voice and clothes were more appropriate to a second-grader (the point when she was pulled from school) than to a teen or an adult. Not only did well-wishers assume Gypsy was much younger than her real age, Dee Dee kept her daughter confused on that score as well.
Nonetheless, Gypsy managed to commence a secret, first-ever “boyfriend” relationship online with Godejohn, whose own significant mental health issues she was too sheltered to recognize. Eventually they methodically plotted and executed Dee Dee’s demise. The guilt of various central parties continues to be debated (Gypsy insists she didn’t participate in the actual killing), but everyone agrees on one thing: Doctors, social workers, police, and myriad others let Gypsy down. While Dee Dee was clearly a master manipulator, she contradicted herself enough that authorities should have realized her daughter needed rescue long before the situation escalated to murder.
Having already been incarcerated for some time when Carr’s camera grants her a forum, Gypsy now looks and acts her age (mid-20s, more or less). But to what extent she’s told the whole truth, or will remain forever psychologically stunted by her upbringing, are questions “Mommy Dead and Dearest” is happy to leave ominously dangling. (Godejohn is not interviewed by the filmmakers.)
With its sickly sweet flashbacks to home movies and public-event footage showing the mother-daughter duo as best friends, this slickly packaged documentary combines true-crime material with a certain tonal element of cruel domestic black comedy. The queasiness of its undeniable entertainment value is underlined by the retro camp of a final-credits song choice: Tony Orlando & Dawn’s cheesy 1973 pop hit “Say, Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose?”