If you have ever watched a televised murder trial and wondered why the family would support the killer, then Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy” is the film for you.
This provocative French-language Canadian film (it had its world premiere at the 2014 Cannes Festival) zeroes in on the extreme relationship of a mother and her child. At times violent at others tender and finally doomed to tragedy Dolan’s “Mommy” draws the full circle of a mother’s love, even when it stretches beyond reality–perhaps especially when it stretches beyond reality.
The mommy in question, Diane, (a gutsy performance by Canadian stage veteran Anne Dorval) lives at the edge of society. We first meet her during a car wreck that could put her in an unplanned financial ditch.
Her son Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon) is a rosebush of thorns and charisma. His violent impulses make him a monster. Yet he hides a sensitive and winning side that draws in those around him. After he’s released from juvenile detention his mother faces the daily challenge of keeping him on the straight.
When mother and child move into a new neighborhood they befriend a silent neighbor (Suzanne Clement), an ex-teacher with a speech impediment of dubious origin. She agrees to take on Steve as a home school student.
[Xavier Dolan is the youngest filmmaker to receive the Cannes Festival Jury’s Prize in 2014 for “Mommy.” Before him Samira Makhmalbaf held that distinction, having been awarded this at the age of twenty for “The Blackboard.”]
By this point, the audience is trying to predict the victim. There is a genuinely hard scene to watch where it seems like the victim will be Steve’s mother. Then, when you least expect it he strikes a connection to those around him with charm and generosity. His mother’s early insistence that he is a good boy doesn’t seem entirely misplaced. By the end, however, their temporary happiness might be wishful thinking.
Dolan shoots much of “Mommy” in a tight frame with a low aspect ratio. During a passage when things are going well, one of the characters expressively opens the picture into widescreen mode. That moment feels like our minds have broken out of prison. It’s a neat transition that shows how the width of the screen works on us psychologically.
With tricks such as these, “Mommy” is a grandly-manipulative film. Dolan achieves the emotional state that it seeks. But how well does that emotional state reflect reality, and how much is untethered artistry?
Twenty five year-old Dolan stands near the front of a great wave of quality Canadian films. These range from the tragic political realism of “Incendies” to Sarah Polley’s confessional “Stories We Tell” to the prairie surrealism of Guy Maddin. I’m not someone who accuses Hollywood of only cranking out megabuck superhero product. Still, the Great White North continues to push a decently-financed counterpoint to Hollywood, and our moviegoing experience is the richer for it.
Released on January 23rd, 2015
Rated R (2 hr 19 mins)