Some films have the ability that cut too close to home. Xavier Dolan’s Mommy is a frighteningly candid look at being completely out of your depth and it left me shaken in a way that I’ll attempt to describe.
In a not too distant Canadian future a new regime government comes into power and passes a law that, under the right socio-economic circumstances, allows your family to be able to indefinitely lock you up. That’s the black mass on the horizon of Mommy as Anne Dorval’s Dianne/Die struggles to contain the destructive force of her son, Antoine-Olivier Pilon’s Steve, a disturbed and explosively angry young man. After being essentially evicted from juvenile detention Die (Dorval) must keep him contained or risk losing him to jail or worse.
Dolan creates a gyre for Die, Steve and Kyla (Suzanne Clément) to be drawn into. It becomes increasingly apparent that this trio, each with questionable mental faculties, have somehow registered that scent of ‘shared crazy’ on each other. The scripting is adept at giving the characters dialogue that always feels exactly like it should, dark or light. Dolan’s Mommy, even from the title, denotes that there’s something Oedipal afoot. While there is a thread in this tapestry that explores Steve’s love for his mother that reaches into the bounds of the uncomfortable it’s framed as even further evidence to Steve’s skewed perception of Die. Dolan chooses to shoot the majority of the film in a frame ratio of 1:1, meaning that essentially you’re looking at Mommy through a square portal. It narrows your focus and subtly reroutes the wiring of your brain to feel like it’s being intimately observed. This technique doesn’t necessarily make it less cinematic; Dolan’s able to capture some beautifully realised slow motion moments of Steve skating through the streets on his long board, swirling a shopping trolley around with graceful chaotic abandon, sweeping and darting in and out of the crevices of Die and Steve’s home where we spend most of our time.
Dolan’s choice of score damned inspired. Playing momentarily against the grain of the scene, until they begin to envelop it, are choice selections like ‘Colorblind’ from the Counting Crows, ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ from The Verve (very Cruel Intentions) and even Canadian “national treasure” (as Steve calls her in the film) Celine Dion gets a run.
Dorval’s Die is just so incredibly complex. She’s a widow turned hustler, scrounging for jobs that she’s under-qualified for, manipulating employers with her looks and constantly looking for ways to stay of off welfare. Die’s clearly masking her own issues. Self medication with marijuana or alcohol strategically placed around the house to enhance every cup of coffee. While Steve is explosive, Die implodes. Dorval’s watching the character at the fray ends of her rope, shaking with fear and shame is spine-chilling. Dolan has young Pilon on a string. He’s just let loose to swell and unleash extreme emotions with varying degrees of malice. From prodding, swearing or showboating to disgusting verbal and physical cruelty he’s a young man crying out for help, until he feels helpless enough to incite a primordial fight or flight response. Dorval’s Die is like an earthquake that is inadvertently stoking Steve’s volcano.
Clément just floored me in every way possible. Her character Kyla, a former teacher is on an indefinite sabbatical after an unmentioned incident. She’s a stuttering, shy yet awkwardly inquisitive teacher who become an essential member of this trio. Steve pushes and niggles until Kyla can’t take it any more. Her performance as she’s wound into an animalistic state is only surpassed by watching her reign herself in. It’s like watching a bunny turn into a grizzly bear and back again.
There are special final scenes in great movies. Heat, Apocalypse Now, Thelma and Louise to name a few. Mommy‘s final scene, underscored with Lana Del Ray’s ‘Young and Beautiful’ is immensely powerful.
Mommy is unbridled brilliance, Dolan is one of the world’s most exciting filmmakers. What more can I say?
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Xavier Dolan
Written by: Xavier Dolan
Starring: Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Suzanne Clément, Alexandre Goyette, Patrick Huard