Directed by: Xavier Dolan.
Written by: Xavier Dolan.
Starring: Anne Dorval (Diane 'Die' Després), Antoine-Olivier Pilon (Steve O'Connor Després), Suzanne Clément (Kyla), Patrick Huard (Paul), Alexandre Goyette (Patrick), Viviane Pascal (Marthe).
25 year old Quebecois filmmaker Xavier Dolan is constantly experimenting with his style, hoping genres with each film, and mixing in different elements, and inspirations, in each of his first five films. His first film, I Killed My Mother, was made when he was just 19 – and he wrote, directed and starred in it – and announced him as a major talent. His next three films, Heartbeats, Laurence Anyways and Tom at the Farm, haven’t quite lived up to his debut – but they were all interesting, and all showed a willingness to experiment. His fifth film, Mommy, returns to the themes addressed in his first film = and may well be his best work to date. The film is wildly ambitious, and if it has a tendency to repeat itself a little too often, and perhaps spends a little too much time showing off stylistically, it’s also Dolan’s deepest, most heartfelt film to date. In many ways, he is making a big screen soap opera – which may explain his choice of a strange 1:1 aspect ratio, most common in old TV, and once again Dolan wears his most obvious influence on his sleeve (in this case, early Pedro Almodovar). But Dolan earns his stylistic excesses, and his influences, by delivering a film that is full of life and emotional upheaval – one that constantly threatens to, but never quite, goes over the top.
The film stars Anne Dorval, who delivered a great performance in the title role of I Killed My Mother, and outdoes that here, as Diane – a lower class widow, with a troubled teenage son – Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon). As the movie opens, Steve is being thrown out of a group home because of another violent outburst – leaving Diane with only two options, take him home herself, or use a controversial new law to commit him (the film opens with a thoroughly unnecessary preamble about a new law coming into effect after the 2015 Canada Federal Election – don’t give Harper any ideas!). She elects to take him home – but it quickly becomes apparent the danger Steve represents. He can be sweet, kind funny one second, and then fly into a rage the next – strangling his mother, going on a hate fueled, racist rant on a cab driver, smashing a glass table, etc. Diane tries her best with Steve – but it’s hard. She’s lost her job, she’s lost her car, and she simply isn’t equipped to handle Steve – despite how much she obviously loves him. A little bit of hope is represented when they meet the neighbor across the street – Kyla (Suzanne Clement), a stuttering teacher on “sabbatical”, with her own family issues and traumas. But she bonds with Diane, and later Steve – and even takes up the task of homeschooling Steve – something Diane is clearly incapable of. And Steve seems to be doing better – but Steve being Steve, he’s constantly at risk at doing something that will screw everything up.
Dolan, who has always been guilty of stylistic excess (which is forgivable when it works – and it mainly works here) took the odd step of shooting the film in a narrow 1:1 aspect ratio – one that resembles old school TV, which is oddly appropriate since he’s basically making a soap opera here. But the 1:1 ratio does something else to the characters – it traps them in the frame, gives them nowhere to go, no space to move around in. There are two moments when Dolan expands the screen to a more traditional, wide ratio – and they are two moments when Steve and Diane feel happiness and freedom, which is a rare occurrence for them.
Mommy has its fair share of problems – at two hours and twenty minutes it’s a little long for a movie that doesn’t have much of a plot, and the film has tendency to repeat itself. There are a few too many musical montages littered throughout the movie, and a few too many meltdowns by Steve as well – Dolan doesn’t need to labor over either the good or bad of Steve, because it’s clear fairly early. As an actor Antoine-Olivier Pilon isn’t quite up to the level of Dorval or Clement – these are three big roles, but you never catch Dorval or Clement ACTING – something you do catch Pilon doing several times. Then again, that could be because the two female performances are so good, that it would be hard for any young actor to hold their own against them. Dorval in particular is brilliant as Diane – a woman who would be struggling with her life even if she didn’t have Steve to contend with. She’s smart, but not educated, and has to hustle to get anything out of life. She’s trying her best, but near the end of her rope. She does something late in the film that will be controversial to some audiences – it certainly is to Kyla – but her scenes after that make it clear precisely why she did it – and why she felt she had to. It is a great performance.
Whatever the flaws in Mommy are, the movies attributes more than make up for them. There is a brilliant sequence in which Diane imagines what Steve’s life would be like in a perfect world – a romantic, hazy delusion that allows Diane a few minutes of peace – before the whole thing comes crashing down around her. The movie is about both of those sides of Diane – the one who wants to believe that her son will be okay, and the one who knows he never will.