Mommy is Xavier Dolan’s fifth feature film (but the first time I was exposed to his work) and it deserves all the recognition it received from Cannes, including its Jury Prize win, because it’s a unique and powerful movie with all around outstanding performances from the cast. Experiencing Mommy without knowing anything prior about the Canadian director was fresh and rewarding. Mommy isn’t an easy watch and at 138 minutes some might have doubts about wanting to watch this raw family drama, but it is well worth your time. The film centers on a widowed mother, Diane (Anne Dorval), who is trying to make ends meet as she tries to raise her troubled teenager, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon). He has recently been expelled from the institution he was studying at for setting the cafeteria on fire. The directors of the institution realize they can’t do anything for Steve and they give Diane (who goes by Die) two options: educate him herself or let the government raise him. Die is infuriated with the proposition because she loves her son, so despite not having the time it takes to look after him she takes him home. Steve suffers from ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) so at one moment he can be cheerfully dancing along to his music, and all of a sudden a trigger sets him off into a violent behavior. He’s also very attached to his mother (the Oedipus complex is present), but their relationship is a love-hate one. When their reclusive neighbor, Kyla (Suzanne Clement), befriends them she offers to help Steve with his education since she is on her sabbatical year from teaching. Kyla has trouble communicating and has been deeply affected by something from her past so she has issues of her own. Mommy builds on the relationship between these three characters and the explosive dynamics between them.
Mommy is a raw family drama about characters that we don’t usually see on film because they are hard to engage with. Steve has ADHD so he is constantly swearing and saying all kinds of hurtful things to the people around him, but at the same time he can be sweet and loving. His mother, Die, has no clue how to deal with him. She loses his patience with him, but she doesn’t accept when others try to correct him and will do anything to defend Steve. She doesn’t qualify as your standard parent of the year candidate, so typically she isn’t someone the audience could relate to. Kyla perhaps would be the likable character here, but Dolan manages to direct this film with such grace and elegance that all three characters end up being people we care about and sympathize with despite their flaws. At first I was thinking there was no way I would end up caring for this kid and her mother, but after carefully setting the stage Dolan manages to give each one of these characters depth. There is a scene at a karaoke bar in which you connect with the kid and the more time you spend with this family the more you understand the mother as well. It is a very raw and explosive film with several emotionally engaging scenes. There was one specific dream sequence that touched me, and it is rare for a film like this to have such an enduring impact on me. Mommy makes me want to go and watch Dolan’s previous four films now because this was one of the best dramas of 2014.
The film was shot on a 1:1 aspect ratio which gives the movie a sense of claustrophobia and enables us to focus on the characters faces and emotions. It is like watching a film through a square box, but it definitely works. The performances enhance this powerful film even more. Suzanne Clement, Anne Dorval, and Antoine-Olivier Pilon are frequent collaborators with Dolan. I was surprised by Pilon’s emotional performance. He was an explosive force of nature and delivers one the most memorable performances of the year. Anne Dorval is also a standout here and depicts the different emotions the mother goes through with her troubled son in a very authentic way. Even the way she walks through the streets of her neighborhood says a lot about her character. Clement has the most restrained performance of the three, but she also delivers in a much more quiet way. These characters aren’t easy to relate to at times, but the cast humanizes each one of them in such a way that we sympathize with them. The performances along with Dolan’s solid screenplay turn this family drama into a stunning work of art. It is a film that will stick with you long after the credits role.