TV’s infatuation with true crime can be traced to “Making a Murderer” and “The Jinx,” but precious little rises to that level. HBO scales those heights and then some with “Mommy Dead and Dearest,” a twisted and twisty documentary that’s as unsettling as it is absorbing.
At first, the story looks like any old hour on Investigation Discovery. In June 2015, Dee Dee Blanchard was murdered and her cancer-stricken and disabled daughter, Gypsy Rose, couldn’t be found. But then Gypsy was located and implicated in the killing, exposing a trail of lies about Gypsy’s condition, which had earned mother and daughter trips to Disney World and generated support from neighbors and national organizations.
Even knowing that much robs the film of some power, but not much, as filmmaker Erin Lee Carr meticulously explores what’s known as Munchhausen by proxy — a form of abuse in which Dee Dee sought to convince Gypsy and those around her that the girl was ill, which included subjecting her to an assortment of unnecessary medical treatments.
Perhaps the most disturbing revelations come via interrogation footage and eventually an interview with Gypsy herself, as well as her secret boyfriend, Nick Godejohn, a relationship that feels plucked from an independent teen drama.
“Mommy Dead and Dearest” thus begins with a grisly killing, before morphing into a more insidious crime involving the victim.
In the process, it raises questions regarding how the deception could have lasted so long — fooling, among others, Gypsy’s father, who wasn’t living with them.
More subtly, the film probes the collective appetite for the kind of human-interest stories that Dee Dee successfully exploited, especially with the two having been prompted to relocate to Springfield, Missouri, after Hurricane Katrina.
At a moment when turning strange real-life tales into multi-part series is all the rage, HBO has wisely limited this story — which has enough dark corners to have accommodated twice the length — into a concise 90-minute package, one that lets the viewer ponder certain details after its over.
Admittedly, the scheduling isn’t ideal coming a day after Mother’s Day. Then again, after watching “Mommy Dead and Dearest,” one takeaway is that whatever you did to thank your mom, you’ll probably feel like it wasn’t enough.
“Mommy Dead and Dearest” premieres May 15 on HBO.