Xavier Dolan is annoyingly brilliant. The brilliance is clear to see in his CV to this point; the annoyance comes from the fact this wunderkind has achieved so much, and he’s still only 26.”
(Not that this 28-year old writer is bitter. Not at all. Not in the slightest. *grimaces* *sobs*).
His filmography to date has seen Dolan grapple with issues of sexual identity and gender politics, all the while invoking the spirit of many great influences (For example, Tom At The Farm is essentially Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train with more sex and less trains). With Mommy, Dolan comes full circle, as he homages his own debut I Killed My Mother. As that title suggests, relations there are fractured. With Mommy, we switch from familial animosity to love, but still told with a signature style of confidence that’s pure Dolan. Indeed, the methods used here mean Mommy is his most self-aware work. Yet it’s arguably his most accessible film, a brutal but honest treatise on how the love of a mother can overcome (almost) all obstacles.
Dolan courts accusations of being precious, even precocious. His accusers will find more fuel in Mommy’s use of a 1:1 aspect ratio. Dolan used this aspect ratio is his music video for Indochine’s ‘College Boy’, and it proves a mesmerising way of ensuring his characters dominate the visible landscape. We are offered a voyeuristic view of lives torn between mental illness and family ties. Also borrowed from that music video is its star, Antoine-Oliver Pilon. He plays Steve, an adolescent ADHD-sufferer prone to violent outbursts. Pilon’s babyface matches his character’s childish emotional responses, but does little to diminish the brute force of his performance. His screams are already loud enough but, in the little viewing square Dolan gives us, they seem deafening.
At the receiving end of much of this grief is Steve’s mother, Die. That’s pronounced ‘Dee’, because this mother is a never-say-die kind of woman. Anne Dorval, a star of a number of Dolan’s previous films, gives one of the year’s most touching performances as Die. Recently widowed, she is forced to bring Steve home to live with her after he commits arson at his residential care home. Her clothes suggest white trash, whilst her potty mouth can match Steve’s at his worst. Beneath that world-hardened exterior, however, is a heart that bleeds for her son. All mothers have dreams for their children, but hers are constantly thwarted by his violence. In the midst of this mercurial life, Die has to try to hold it all together. Dorval ably brings out the heartbreak through Die’s outward sharpness, only for Pilon to wipe away a tear and call her ‘babe’. It’s a relationship that’s hard to read, albeit helped by two intense performances.
Also along for this wild emotional ride is Kyla, Die and Steve’s new neighbour played by another Dolan regular, Suzanne Clément. A mousy, diffident type, former teacher Kyla is initially drawn into her new neighbours’ lives by neighbourly good stead, which turns into a necessary affection. Through many highs and lows, the three grow to depend on one another. The lows often involve Steve becoming violent, and the highs are accompanied by a cheesy but undeniably upbeat selection of ‘90s pop and ballads. Simple but profound joys are on show when Celine Dion, Oasis or the Counting Crows accompany this trio sorting out their lives. Kyla’s involvement could seem superfluous under greater scrutiny; the mother-son bond should be enough to drive the drama. Still, she adds chances for levity and redemption; Clément’s tender turn and Dolan’s clear affection for all three characters ensure she fits into place.
I Killed My Mother was sharply biographical for Dolan, but Mommy feels no less personal. Dolan’s trademark energy and style are in obvious supply. That said, he owes no small debt to cinematographer André Turpin (who also shot Tom At The Farm). The 1:1 framing is a gamble, but it works because there’s very little else in the film that feels gimmicky. The film is set in the near-future, with a subplot about a law which allows parents of troubled children like Steve to put them directly into state care, but it ultimately doesn’t matter. That’s more down to the heightened emotions on display that subpar writing, even if Dolan’s script isn’t as brilliantly transgressive as Laurence Anyways. Still, Dolan’s direction is as brash as ever, yet always under control. Even compared to Laurence Anyways or I Killed My Mother, emotions run high in Mommy. By reducing the screen to a square, little else else but faces can be seen at the height of the emotional battles herein. A holy trinity of director, cinematographer and actors combine to bring out the very best in Mommy. Whether this is Dolan’s best work is debatable but, even if it were, there is still better to come. After all, he’s still only 26. His mommy must be proud.