Tierney Gearon: The Mother Project is such a beautiful, emotionally complex, and intellectually layered film, it's a shame its makers sought fit to stick it with such a literal, potentially crippling title. It begins with shades of Tarnation, as the titular, internationally renowned model-turned-photographer Gearon drives through blinding snow to the rangy, ramshackle upstate NY home of her schizophrenic mother, who she'll proceed to photographically document, off-and-on, for the next three years. As a story of art under the influence of familial tension and mental illness, comparisons to Jonathan Caouette's me-me-me-a-thon are seemingly inevitable. But filmmakers Jack Youngelson and Peter Sutherland provide a welcome layer of distance; their film is undeniably as interested as Caouette's in the role that personal mythology plays on art, but they wisely stick to documenting that relationship, without weaving it into an artificial mysticism. Up until this point, most of Gearon's work has focused on her own children. Emilee, the eldest, intuitively gloms on to the performance aspects of her mother's work; when she tells the camera that she enjoys the opportunities to "be somebody different", she's only confirming what the prints have already shown. When we meet him, Tierney's son Michael is a strangely philosophical six-year-old, announcing to his mother his belief that "everyone is born bad!" before expressing his fear that he doesn't know how to love. By the end of the film, Michael has aged three years, and has started to worry in earnest (and certainly, with good cause) about the impact his mother's work will have on his life.

Tierney Gearon is best known for an image that caused great controversy in England, of Emilee and Michael, then 6 and 4, facing the camera head-on, stark naked save for wild beast masks on each child's head. In 2001, this photo was one of several of Gearon's displayed in a group show at the Saatchi Gallery in London, called I Am a Camera. Going into the exhibition, Gearon, who had traveled the world as both a model and a fashion photographer before marrying a Frenchman and settling down to have kids, was the unknown amongst established names such as Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman and Andreas Gursky; by the end of the exhibition, she had become a somewhat reluctant art star. In the interim, Scotland Yard threatened to seize the mask print, as well another image of Michael, peeing in the snow. The ever-honorable British tabloids pounced on the controversy, reprinted the offending images in the Sunday color editions; before long, a long-dormant art censorship movement had a new martyr to stand behind. Charges were never filed, but Gearon walked away from the scandal wearing a "bad girl" reputation that she didn't quite know what to do with.

Even as the film ostensibly tracks Gearon's trips to New York from her London and L.A. homes to create a series of photographs of her mother, Sutherland and Youngelson aren't nearly as concerned with the photographs themselves as they are with the life-stuff that feeds into them. For instance: one of the most arresting images produced from the project is of blonde-curled Michael, wailing in pain, with Emilee's red-clogged foot anchoring the frame just behind him. But we don't see that image until after an amazing scene in which we watch Emilee deliver an unprovoked kick to her brother's shins, at which point their crazy grandmother starts babbling about how she's almost certainly "kicked a hole in the bone," likely doing "permanent damage." As Michael continues to scream, the grandmother asks her daughter -- who has been off camera and strangely quiet throughout the incident -- to calm her son down. "Go rub [his leg], Tierney," she says. The camera pans over to Tierney ... who is frantically snapping pictures.

"Why does an artist have a need to do things?" Tierney wonders aloud, in various different ways, several times throughout the film. It's essentially The Mother Project's thesis, and it also conveniently precludes the possible criticism that what Gearon does -- essentially, hang out with her kids taking extremely high-quality family snapshots -- isn't actually art. As Tierney questions her own artistic impulses, and tries to dismantle criticisms that her work exploits its subjects, it becomes clear that Tierney's camera serves any number of functions: it's a shield and a weapon, sure, but as she subtly manipulates and gently capitalizes on one natural situation after another in order to better embody her fears, feelings, and, most often, her memories, the camera very definitely serves as Tierney's sole tool of articulate expression. In one section of the film, Tierney becomes pregnant with her third child. She announces, via voiceover, that after her divorce, after the scandal, even after beginning "The Mother Project," she felt as though something in her life was missing. Not long before her second son was born, she says, she realized that the third child was going to be "the missing link." Before long, she's using her baby son as her own avatar in the photography, and as the photos float from borderline exploitation to intense self-portraiture, Tierney's project -- and that of the filmmakers -- really start to fall into place.

To have the opportunity to investigate the harsh impact of mental illness on an otherwise everyday family, and to shy away from that course in favor of focusing on the personal, everyday dramas of an artist and mother could, I suppose, seem like the easy way out. But that would seem to be a misguided, if not superficial, criticism to make in the face of all that The Mother Project accomplishes. Contemporary art is an incredibly difficult thing to talk about in a sympathetic manner; Sutherland and Youngelson not only manage that, they also produce a portrait of a woman's intertwined life, work and personal philosophy that couldn't be more visually attractive or emotionally seductive. If there's another film that produces an investigation of a single artist that's more compelling, I've yet to see it.

At its Tribeca screenings, Tierney will be preceded by Topor and Me. A cute, wildly surreal animated short by Sylvia Kristel, in which the star of Emmanuelle (and its many sequels) vividly tells the story of how she transitioned from starlet to painter under the tutelage of Roland Topor.