Mommy (Xavier Dolan, 2014)
Xavier Dolan’s Mommy is a hard-going slog. Emotionally harrowing, long, and full of drawn-out conversations. However, I did find myself hanging on every word. Or at least I thought I did, because it seems that I missed a fair bit.
Mommy begins with opening titles informing us that in a “fictionalised” 2015 Canadian setting, a law has been passed whereby parents can have their problem children institutionalised without court order. Given the realistic nature of the film, this is rather awkward, and also acts as a major spoiler for the events to come. Following these titles, we see Die (Anne Dorval) picking up her teenage son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) from a state care facility. He has been kicked out due to violence against another child, and will now be home-schooled by his mother. The two of them soon meet and befriend mysterious neighbour, Kyla (Suzanne Clément) who presents with a pronounced stutter. She is clearly holding back, but why? If you don’t have a keen eye for detail you may leave the film still unsure.
The relationship between Die and Steve is clearly dysfunctional, with his official diagnosis given as ADHD and Attachment Disorder. Though the earlier death of his father goes some way into explaining this development, much is left unclear. However, the unusual relationship between Steve and his mother is clearly a perpetuating factor and the grim reality is that they will struggle to escape this negative cycle. In a dream sequence, Die imagines how her son’s life could play out in more ‘normal’ circumstances and this is absolutely heartbreaking.
Antoine-Olivier Pilon plays Steve perhaps a little over the top. It almost seems that he has a clichéd idea of how a ‘crazy’ person should behave, and is playing it up to a nearly slapstick degree. In some instances he seems to be channelling more of a fully-fledged psychopath à la Michael Pitt in Funny Games, rather than an individual with attentional and attachment issues. However, this is only in a couple of instances and he is compelling to watch for the most part. On the other hand, Anne Dorval is 100% convincing in an extremely well-written character, although I was perhaps most impressed with Suzanne Clément whose performance was completely authentic. Unfortunately, when the film ended I still didn’t know what her deal was, until someone else told me. It’s revealed in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment outside of the dialogue, and evidently I did. Knowing this important detail gives so much more depth and meaning to the story and I feel this just was not made as clear as it could and should have been. There was no need for ambiguity here.
The film is shot in 1:1 aspect ratio (i.e. a square) which is irritating at times, though easy to forget about. Apparently the screen expands in a few instances for thematic purposes, though I managed to miss this as well – spatial awareness has always been my weakness. The 1:1 does heighten the feeling of claustrophobia and of the characters feeling trapped, and while this doesn’t make for a physically enjoyable viewing experience, it is still a clever choice. I wasn’t such a fan of the soundtrack either which consists of 90s songs that don’t sit right in a 2015 setting, even if they are good songs.
Mommy has received rave reviews from around the world, and I’ll admit that for a 25 year old director – with six films to his name already – it’s pretty impressive. Unfortunately, some things just didn’t work for me. As far as French Canadian films go – and I’ll admit I haven’t seen many – this didn’t reach the heights of Café de Flore by Jean-Marc Vallée. Those who have seen a great deal of foreign films and who have the patience for the kind of pacing involved here may be incredibly impressed. But I’m still trying to figure out why I missed the obvious screen expansion and a key plot point. Hot tip: PAY CLOSE ATTENTION (and don’t blink).