Quebec-born wunderkind Xavier Dolan is only 26-years-old, and this, his fifth feature film, is a bold statement. The theme of mothers and sons returns this French-Canadian director to the motif of his first film, I Killed My Mother (2009), however this time around, it’s the mother who feels like doing the killing.
Cannes Jury Prize-winning Mommy follows the story of feisty and widowed single mum Diane (Anne Dorval), who finds herself burdened with the full-time custody of her unpredictable ADHD teenage son, Steve (17-year-old Antoine Olivier Pilon).
The pair are inseparable, but their close bond leads to explosive conflicts that threaten to leave Diane with no choice but to institutionalise her son. Enter Kyla (Suzanne Clément), a peculiar former high-school teacher, who without any obvious motivation, takes it upon herself to tutor Steve and become Diane’s only friend.
Mommy is intense, unsettling, and at times, uplifting. Essentially and rather ironically, it’s a black comedy about white trailer trash – but Dolan goes deeper and darker into the heart of the matter. There’s much more substance and guts to this film than in previous Dolan experiments, and naturally, this comes from the wisdom of age and experience.
The tearaway trio are a tour-de-force on screen, bringing bucket loads of charisma and chemistry to characters that are otherwise volatile or indie-complex. All three lead actors are Dolan regulars, and as Diane (aka ‘Die’), Dorval is a scene-stealing revelation. Known mainly for her collaborations with Dolan (I Killed My Mother, Heartbeats, Laurence Anyways), the 54-year-old brings emotional prowess and layering to a woman who could’ve been so easily caricatured in the hands of a lesser actress.
Adolescent actor Pilon (who played a bit-part alongside Dorval in Laurence Anyways) has all the magnetic makings of a great actor. From the stolen chains around his neck to his cheeky smile, Steve is a loveable, baby-faced blonde ratbag. Despite a very serious tendency to be violent or insulting, Steve’s troubles come from the frustration brought on by the inability to control his emotions. ADHD – Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, in its entirety – is a bitch that way.
As oddball new neighbour Kyla, Suzanne Clément warms on you. At first, her stuttering language barrier and girlish shyness grates, but as she relaxes in the presence of mother and son, her character blossoms. Kyla’s family are never fully realised in the film, but you presume dissatisfaction or a lack of excitement in her home life is what draws her to the damaged duo in the first place.
Because the three actors have worked together and with Dolan before, you get such organic and powerhouse performances on screen. The camera lingers on each actor, and although sometimes minutes go by without much dialogue at all, subtle expressions can say so much.
Stylistically, Dolan has created his most audacious baby yet. Filmed in an unusual 1:1 ratio (best described as Instagram-like), Mommy transitions a handful of times throughout the film. The “ooh” worthy technique is determined by – and coincides with – the mood of the scene. For example, when Steve is skateboarding through the street in a good mood, he pulls the ratio into widescreen with his hands to show that his tunnel-vision world is expanding.
None of the pain, anguish, fear or violence that can be associated with severe ADHD has been watered-down or glamourised by Dolan. From aggressive assaults and vague Oedipal complex interactions with his mother, to racist tirades in a taxi, Steve’s impulsive outbursts make for deliberately uncomfortable viewing at times. Every tumultuous moment is tremendously acted, scripted and filmed.
Dolan has set the bar for independent American/Canadian cinema pretty high with this roller-coaster ride of a film, though some may view its techniques as a tad self-indulgent. High-voltage, shameless, devastating and funny all at once, Mommy is a barnstorming, box office bolt of indie-melodrama!
Mommy is released exclusive to Cinema Nova on April 9, courtesy of Sharmill Films.