The film centers on painter and professor Beverly McIver, a North Carolina native who moved to New York City and never looked back. She forged a successful career as both an artist and teacher, and in 2003 is savoring her first solo gallery show, as well as praise from Art In America critic Raphael Rubinstein. However, her mother Ethel asks that if/when she should pass on, that Beverly promise to care for her cognitively impaired sister Renee, whose mental development is on par with that of a child in third grade. Beverly agrees, and a few years later is finally forced to confront the life changing reality of taking in Renee, and finds herself questioning why she agreed to do it and how it will impact her life, particularly in terms of her professional and creative success.
McIver herself also stays mum on what kind of catharsis (or not) her paintings of her family bring her, or what she is trying to express. In fact, her relationship to her family warrants deeper exploration. As McIver notes, she is the only one of her family who isn't religious and who got out of Greensboro as soon as she had the chance (citing the still palpable racism of the region as a motivating factor). Yet, no questions are asked of her mother or her other sister Roni about what they thought about this, or how it makes them feel. In another segment, Beverly laments that in her 40s, she longs to find a husband, but again this thought is left to drift as we learn little about her past relationships or how caring for Renee has impacted the prospects of finding a companion. But perhaps her biggest regret is leaving New York City to care for Renee just as her status in the art world was ascending. What could she have gained or where could she have gone if she had stayed? That speculation (or, again, insight from someone like Rubinstein) remains left to the viewer to cast.
There is a myriad of complex emotions when it comes to caring for a disabled family member, but "Raising Renee" never mines them. The myopic view and insistence to stay strictly within the viewpoints of blood relatives Beverly and Renee prevents the film from having the kind of scope and perspective it so desperately needs. Instead, the second half of the film slightly shifts focus to Renee herself, revealing a couple of harrowing facts about her life, followed by a sweet, promising change in her situation that makes her future unbelievably brighter than it has ever been. And while "Raising Renee" reaches a warm conclusion, it's hardly enough to gloss over the slightness of the film, one in which cats and hand knit potholders are used to cover the harder edges of a much more compelling story that's never told. [C]
"Raising Renee" airs on HBO2 on Wednesday, February 22 at 8 PM.