- Written by
- Xavier Dolan
- Directed by
- Xavier Dolan
- Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon and Suzanne Clément
Xavier Dolan's fifth feature film in five years, Mommy is all about characters caught in the sway of outsized emotions. The story of a widowed mother (Anne Dorval), her hyperactive teenaged son (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) and a nervous neighbour woman with a speech impediment (Suzanne Clément) is one of those funny, brash, exposed-nerve projects that may lead previous doubters to cast aside most of their reservations.
The same elements that have endeared or alienated viewers of Dolan's previous films are all here in Mommy, which has been selected as Canada's submission to the Oscars in the best foreign language film category. In essence, Dolan has shuffled the elements of his breakthrough feature, I Killed My Mother: There's the same actress as the mother in that film (Dorval), the same sympathetic teacher (Laurence Anyways star Clément) and another troubled teenager (Pilon, in a role similar to the part Dolan himself played).
Yet Mommy feels like a quantum leap in empathy from Dolan's previous films. The heroine here is Diane (Die) Després, a tough, working-class Quebecker who speaks broad-vowelled joual, dresses in tacky, too-young clothes and refuses to back down from any fight. As the movie begins, Die crashes her car on the way to the reform school where her 15-year-old son, Steve, is a resident: After lighting a fire in the cafeteria, he has been kicked out.
Instead of this being a grim occasion, both mother and son, similarly profane, tempestuous and bursting with energy, are joyous at being reunited. Their shared history is embodied in the movie's exuberant soundtrack – purportedly a mixtape of vintage pop (Sarah McLachlan, Céline Dion, Counting Crows and, in one striking scene, Oasis's Wonderwall) that Steve's father left behind when he died.
No doubt Die and Steve love each other, but she's in the struggle of her life to maintain her love and hope for her angel-devil child, whose violent outbursts are invariably followed by shame and contrition. Her immediate problem is to make a living while taking care of his education. Shortly after settling into the mother's suburban home, they meet a neighbour, Kyla (Clément), a teacher who is taking a health leave after an emotional breakdown that has left her with a debilitating stammer. Die makes a shrewd calculation: Befriend the obviously needy Kyla, and provide Steve with temporary home-schooling.
Mommy is at its best when it allows its three terrific actors to explore these scenes of intimacy inside Die's cramped home (the claustrophobia is enhanced by the narrow aspect ratio of the screen through most of the film), the power games, the reconciliations and the operatic intensity of this unusual trio. At times, it teeters on the edge of transgression: Steve's hands are in all the wrong places with both his mother and Kyla. The three people curse and humiliate each other and, at times, find moments of joy and even superiority toward the less vital, less exciting people around them. The bureaucrats, a smarmy neighbourhood lawyer, even Kyla's husband and daughter, are treated dismissively.
Several elements of Dolan's grander design for Mommy are unconvincing, including a clumsy title card at the beginning that announces a future law where children can be incarcerated on their parents' wishes. (It's the equivalent of the gun produced in the first act of a play.) There are improbabilities in the backstory about Die's former middle-class life, and her part-time job as translator of children's books seems fanciful. The movie might also benefit from an editor who wasn't its author, to shear it of some of its endings.
What makes the flaws forgivable is Dolan's love of his characters, his encouragement of the actors to stretch to their limits as people struggling for independence and dignity in a world that marks them as losers. What resonates after the credits have ended aren't the glitches but the story of a mother's anguish over her child, and the strength of her hope against the odds.