I Killed My Mother *** ½
Directed by: Xavier Dolan
Written By: Xavier Dolan.
Starring: Anne Dorval (Chantale), Xavier Dolan (Hubert Minel), François Arnaud (Antonin), Suzanne Clément (Julie), Patricia Tulasne (Hélène), Niels Schneider (Éric), Monique Spaziani (Denise), Pierre Chagnon (Richard Minel).
Most movies about teenagers are made by people who forget what being a teenager was actually like. That is why we get movies like Adventureland (which is a fine film), that look back at those days with nostalgia and joy. But I Killed My Mother has none of that rose colored view of teenage years. This is probably because it was written and directed by Xavier Dolan, who was 19 when he made the film. He gets those years right – the rages, the arguments with parents and how they seem to be purposefully ruining your life. When you’re a teenager, you cannot see the big picture, but just what is immediately in front of you. And, if like in the movie, both you and your single mother who is raising you are undiagnosed manic-depressives, things are just worse than normal.
Dolan also stars in the movie, playing Hubert, a 16 year old kid from Montreal who is living at home with his mother Chantale (Anne Dorval). The two of them cannot seem to have a normal conversation without at least one of them flying into a rage – which of course, sets off the other one. The father, Richard (Pierre Chagnon) is pretty much out of the picture, although he still lives in town. When Hubert was 8, he decided that being a husband and father wasn’t really for him and just left. Now Chantale and Hubert just crash into each other every night. Every time Hubert complains about anything, Chantale asks him to “take a survey” at school among his friends to find out “how many other mothers would do this for their son”. The constant bickering between the two of them has driven both of them to the end of their ropes.
Hubert has other problems than just his mother. As I mentioned before, I think he is manic depressive, just like his mother and grandmother. They mention the grandmother who had to be institutionalized before her death and her problems, but neither one of them can face the fact that they as well could use help with their mental problems. Add this to the fact that Hubert is gay, and cannot tell his mother about it, and you have one confused teenager. When he is assigned a project at school to detail what one of his parents does for a living, he tells his teacher that he never sees his father (true) and that his mother is dead (not true). The teacher feels sorry for him, and takes him under her wing for a bit – but soon Chantale has been told by the school that Hubert told his teacher she was dead – which makes her barge into the school and throw a tantrum in the hallway.
I Killed My Mother is a very strong debut film for Dolan – as a writer, as a director and as an actor. There are people who have been doing this for decades and don’t have the skills to pull off all three of these jobs in one movie. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that he was able to write and play a teenager so well – after all, he still is one. But what amazed me was the portrait of Chantale, his mother. She is hardly a one dimensional monster, and this is not a French Canadian Mommie Dearest. Dolan sees her clearly, and even generates some sympathy for her. When a school administrator calls her and says that Hubert could benefit from a “more stable male influence in her life”, she flies off the handle, but we understand why, and feel sympathy for her. Dorval gives a remarkable performance as Chantale. Dolan’s cinematic eye is also well honed from a 19 year old. True, he does go a little overboard on the “artistic” shots at points, but mainly this is a remarkable visual film.
I Killed My Mother played at the Cannes film festival last year, was Canada’s official entry for the Academy Awards Foreign Language Film race (and should have at least been shortlisted), and will most likely dominate the Genie Awards later this spring. All this for a film by a 19 year old. Amazing.