Throughout his oeuvre, writer/director Xavier Dolan has presented viewers with the great range of loving relationships. Love cannot be contained in neat categories constrained by normalcy or appropriateness. In his films, love spills over, revealed in raw emotion both beautiful and ugly. In Mommy, Dolan has developed characters filled with contradictions, shortcomings and limitations, brought to life through powerful performances by Anne Dorval as Diane, mother to teenage Steve played by Antoine-Olivier Pilon. These raw performances coupled with Dolan’s stylistic narrative make Mommy one of the most immersive, adventurous and – dare I say – masterful films of this year. It rightfully won the jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014 tying with another master, Jean-Luc Godard (Godard’s Goodbye to Language 3D affirms a master filmmaker’s place in history of cinema). Mommy also won the Best North American Film Award at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.
The film opens to a stark announcement about a law that allows parents to commit their children to a state-run facility if they are beyond control. The harsh law is also a warning for the audience to brace themselves, as the world we are about to enter is not an easy one. Mommy is the story of a dysfunctional family, a recently widowed woman and her teenage son, who has just been released from an institution, struggle to make a life for themselves. Circumstances constrain both mother and son. They live in economic distress and have difficulty managing their emotions in socially acceptable ways. The emotionally fractured characters are all strong and vulnerable, needing a family while rejecting structures — a modern tale of family.
The film kicks off with the encounter between mother and son, which is both a violent clash between two opposing worlds and a beautiful encounter between two family members who love each other so deeply it hurts. Diane “Die” Després (Dorval) is a recently widowed single mother living pay check to pay check. Die flaunts an over-sexualized image complete with youthful, scantily clad outfits that make for a garish exterior. Her maternal instincts kick in when Steve comes to live with her. Steve is loud and rude, but his is also screaming for attention and starving for familial connection. Going through adolescence, Steve’s sexuality is also very much present. Both Die and Steve are deeply affected by the loss of Steve’s father a few years earlier, and although they love each other deeply, their dynamic is fraught with confrontations that escalate to conflict easily. Dolan does not hold back, constraining much of the action in a suffocating 1:1 aspect ratio, and inviting the actors to express their characters to grating, bombastic heights that those familiar with his work should be prepared for.
Early in the movie, Steve comes home with bags filled with groceries and a gift for Die: a gold necklace that spells “Mommy.” He clearly has no way to pay for any of these things, and his worried mother scornfully implies thieving, shutting down his at first triumphant and exuberant entrance. Feeding off her negativity, Steve’s joy quickly turns to a violent outburst, one of the constants in the character dynamic throughout the film, which also seems on the edge of exploding in unpredictable ways.
Pilon’s performance captures that teenage angst and volatility brilliantly, and Dolan understands how to ratchet them with his shooting style. Some of the shots of Steve by himself running around and playing with a shopping cart in a parking lot showcase that combination of boredom and excess of energy all captured in the narrow confines of a life that seems overbearing, as demonstrated with a tighter aspect ratio than the sometimes familiar and more comfortable 4:3. Dolan’s stylistic choice therefore pushes the film medium to new heights, which is what makes him an exciting director. His defiance to the establishment can be likened to Steve’s own frustration with rules and order.
The complex relationship between mother and son is somewhat alleviated by the presence of neighbor Kyla (Suzanne Clément), who becomes a friend to Die and a caretaker to Steve. Unable to connect with her own family because of a mysterious trauma early in her life, Kyla suffers from a speech impediment that becomes less pronounced as she settles in with Steve and Die. Her ability to find her voice comes as the three characters discover an unconventional family structure. The trio go from feeling trapped in their own circumstances to a freeing state that feels easy and open. As the entire mood of the film changes, “Wonderwall” by Oasis takes over the soundtrack, and beyond Steve’s smile, we can hear Noel Gallagher’s bratty cool voice intone, “Back beat, the word is on the street/That the fire in your heart is out.” The relief is so enjoyable it’s easy to forget the looming warning foreshadowed at the top of the film: the possibility of having Steve committed.
Dolan’s fifth film is as much an exploration on familial relationships and friendships, as it is a transformation in his filmmaking to another level. The exuberance and emotion that jump out of the screen are as much a product of strong performances as they are a result of Dolan’s directorial vision to take light, music and even the screen in a different direction. The stylistic choices in Mommy are not gratuitous but serve the overall arc of the story, doing what cinema does best, telling a story with imagery that captures all your senses. Dolan’s Mommy grabs on to your psyche and does not let go, and it will stay with you.
Mommy runs 139 minutes, is in French with English subtitles and is rated R (for cussing and sexual referencing). It opens this Friday at the Coral Gables Art Cinema in Coral Gables, the Miami Beach Cinematheque in Miami Beach and The Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale. To find screenings elsewhere in the US click here. The Coral Gables Art Cinema hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this review.