Dolan's fifth film is a shock to the system, a powerful, personal tale about enduring love.
A blow to the head, a kick to the chest, and a shock to the system, Xavier Dolan’s fifth feature, Mommy, is a bludgeoning film that captures the hysteria of motherhood. It’s overwhelming, powerful, and bracingly sincere, though my initial reaction was that turning down the dials a bit (it’s 139 minutes of fierce family drama) may have served it well. But then I thought, maybe not: Dolan, known for his hyper-personal storytelling, is one of those rare filmmakers who truly can’t help but be himself, and even though Mommy isn’t the most immaculately crafted movie out there, there’s no doubt that it’s 100% him on the screen, and dialing anything down would seem like a betrayal of identity.
As a newcomer to the French-Canadian enfant terrible’s work, I sought out his first, semi-autobiographical film, I Killed My Mother (which he directed at only 19 years old; he’s a geezer now at 25), after seeing Mommy. It was an enlightening experience to watch them in that order, to say the least. In both films Anne Dorval plays the single mother of a problem child, and while the first film was inspired by the resentment Dolan felt for his mother as a teen, with Mommy he takes a stab at telling a story from a mom’s-eye-view, painting the mother in a much more sympathetic, loving light. Then, we had Dolan himself assuming the role of the boy; now, we have Antoine-Olivier Pilon, a terrific young actor whose explosive onscreen presence can barely be contained (not that Dolan had any intention of containing…well, anything).
The film opens by unexpectedly plopping us in an alternate-future Canada where by law parents of volatile young children have ultimate power over whether or not their child is institutionalized, bypassing the court system altogether. (This ultimately has little bearing on the story as a whole, though as a device opens up many opportunities for drama and internal struggle, all of which Dolan seizes.) Diane “Die” Déspres (Dorval) must pick up her son Steve (Pilon), who’s been kicked out of one such institution following an incident involving him setting the lunchroom on fire and seriously injuring another kid. Steve is a short-tempered, volcanic personality who’s relentlessly rude and yet somehow charming; he’s got great enthusiasm, though more often than not his temperament turns red and his energy gets pointed in the wrong direction. Die’s similar in many ways, though she’s got a better hold of her emotions and has infinitely more patience.
While he loves his mom deeply, Steve seems born to break her patience, and the relationship is always on the brink of full-meltdown. One day an argument over a stolen(?) necklace escalates to disturbing, violent levels, and a miracle walks through the door in the form of Kyla (Suzanne Clément), their neighbor from across the street. She has a cooling effect on the two, stabilizing the household almost immediately, though Steve’s thrashing temper takes a bit of working to wrangle (a fantastic kitchen scene that ends on the floor is the breaking point). She home schools Steve to help him graduate high school, affording Die more time to work on her career, and in return the two loudmouths teach Kyla–who’s recently been stricken with a speech impediment–to open up and express herself more freely. Together, the trio form a tight bond and provide for each other all they need…that is, until the repercussions of Steve’s pyro display at juvi rears its ugly head.
There’s some uncomfortable sexual tension that goes on throughout the movie, and some of Steve’s wild outbursts are incredibly hard to watch. But this is a story about love, specifically love’s ability to thrive even in the strangest, most difficult environments. If you saw these people at a glance, on their worst day (or even a normal day), you’d probably be pretty alarmed by their behavior. What Dolan does so well here is get us to understand these people and their uncommon lives and show us all of the weirdness and beauty and ugliness of it all. The protracted running time helps in this aspect of his vision, giving us time to sit with and know the characters, though some scenes do feel redundant, like they’re serve this purpose above all others.
Enough can’t be said about how good the three leads are and how well they respect each other’s space. Pilon lives in the highs and lows, being tender and sweet one minute, murderous and insufferable the next, on a dime. Dorval plays mostly in the middle, always right on the very edge of a breakdown, reeling herself in just a second away from losing her shit. It’s a performance of tortured restraint, and when she finally does break down, it’s unforgettable. Clément is the chill pill, balancing the high-strung tension of the other two with reason and a soothing touch.
There’s a fantastic sequence that demonstrates exactly what’s special about Dolan as a filmmaker. The movie is shown in 1:1 aspect ratio, which is mostly a thematic choice, and in a montage that abridges the best period in the trio’s relationship (maybe a few weeks), we see Steve looking straight into the camera in a moment of pure rapture as Oasis’ “Wonderwall” floods the speakers. Wearing a giant smile, he sticks his arms out in front of him, towards us, and spreads them wide, the picture’s aspect ratio expanding as if he’s shaping the world (our world) to his liking. In a less assured director’s hands this would be gimmicky, but instead it’s an amazing movie moment that made me want to burst.
I was talking with a friend recently about the relationship between self-indulgence, selfishness, ego, and passion, and how they relate to one’s craft (we were talking about chefs, but filmmakers fit into the conversation just as well). There’s some perfect ratio of all these things that sometimes come together and result in an artist who exists outside the boundaries and churns out incredible work that isn’t perfect, but is wholly irreplaceable. Dolan’s one of those guys, and Mommy is evidence of that.