If you ever want to feel bad about how your career’s going, look no further than Xavier Dolan. The Canadian director who hails from Québec has — in the span of just six years — written and directed five feature films. For a filmmaker younger than the NES to be able to work at a nearly film-a-year pace in Canada is impressive. To have those films earn acclaim and admiration at major festivals around the world is nothing short of extraordinary. Yet that is exactly what Mr. Dolan has done. Add to this the fact that he stars in almost all of them, and that the films are filled with an emotional depth and complexity that few directors are ever able to reach, and you have perhaps the fastest rising star in Canadian cinema.
With Mommy we may be seeing the end of the opening chapter in what promises to be a long and interesting career. In his semi-autobiographical début film I Killed My Mother, Dolan explored the troubled relationship between a homosexual teenage boy and his single mother. After this he branched out to films about different types of relationships: Heartbeats was a story of a man and woman in love with the same man, Laurence Anyways the story of a male-to-female transsexual’s varying relationships over a ten year span and last year’s Tom at the Farm the story of a grieving man and his twisted relationship with the mother and older brother of his former lover. In most of these films the mother-son relationship still lingers in the wings, but with Mommy Dolan turns his full attention back to the subject that clearly fascinates him the most.
Mommy follows Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), a troubled teenage boy who, at the beginning of the film, is released from a juvenile care facility after severely injuring another boy in a fire. He’s taken back into the care of Diane (Anne Dorval), his widowed single mother who’s struggling to make ends meet. Left deep in debt by her late husband, and hardened by fate’s stacked deal, Diane hustles to find work and keep her unpredictable son out of trouble as the spectre of a lawsuit over Steve’s fire looms over them.
As the title suggests the central focus on the story is the intense relationship between mother and son. Both characters feel abandoned to each other. Steve by the death of his father and his institutionalization at the hands of his mother. Diane by the expensive death of her husband and, on a larger scale, by society itself. Left with only each other (and a half-tonne of emotional baggage) mother and son are held together by the thin, shaky, but unbreakable bond of shared blood. The type of bond that one often resents far more than one appreciates.
And there is no lack of resentment here. At the centre of Dolan’s story is Diane. In her primped hair, girlish clothing and trailer-park drawl she is a model cougar, yearning for a lifestyle which has long since passed her by. To her Steve represents the impossibility of escape. Though he yearns to do well by his mother and dreams of attending Julliard to study art, it’s clear Steve’s mental condition will require a lifetime of support, something that, as the film begins, Diane is unable to afford.
While our empathy is firmly with Diane our attention is inevitably on Steve. Whirling through the film like a force of nature, Steve feels like Dolan’s Id brought to the screen. Brash, exuberant and hostile, he quickly turns Diane’s joy at their reunion back into a desperate struggle to keep things at an even keel. His dangerous outbursts are often quickly followed by childlike affection towards his mother, mirroring the exploration of domestic abuse seen in Dolan’s 2013 release Tom At The Farm. Despite his actions, Steve is just as trapped by his circumstances as his mother. He’s unable to do something as simple as buy groceries without being suspected of something nefarious.
The beacon of hope comes to the small family in the form of Kyla, a mysterious woman who lives across the street. Stumbling into their lives during a particularly violent outburst of Steve’s, Kyla quickly ingratiates herself with them. Hampered by a severe speech impediment (the causes of which are only hinted at) and near comatose home life (again, we only get a glimpse) Kyla finds in the strange mother and son a reason to return to conscious participation in the outside world. Soon Kyla (played beautifully by regular Dolan collaborator Suzanne Clément) has taken over the home schooling of Steve and has become an essential part of the family. While she seems a guardian angel, she also represents the dangers of wishing for a life that is not your own. In the film’s one break from its realist style we’re transported into Diane’s mind as she glimpses a life that could have been for her son. It’s a heartbreaking moment that re-enforces just how much Dolan cares for his characters. He has thought of the happy ending just like us, but he’s strong enough not to take it.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about Mommy (and Dolan in general) is the fact that a realist drama about a blue-collar Québecois family can still be a canvas for daring visual storytelling. Dolan’s camera brings us into the faces of his characters like an intruder, and gives the feeling as if they know we are there, holding up a cell phone camera to their plight. Adding to the claustrophobia is his choice to shoot the film in 1:1 aspect ratio, literally walling us in along with his characters. Though the ratio takes some getting used to, it also allows for one of the most exhilarating moments of cinema magic this year as Steve, in a moment of transportive bliss, literally reaches out and pulls the edges of the picture open. It’s an incredible piece of bravado by the young director and, like a brief intermission, gives the audience a deep breath before throwing them back into the fray.
And we’re happy to jump back in. Though the film revels in a lot of the dark and dreary aspects of life, it’s a joyful expression on the thrill of filmmaking by a director still so young as to marvel at his medium. Dolan is everywhere in it’s creation. Whether it’s the ridiculously eclectic soundtrack featuring Céline Dion and Counting Crows (among many others), or the hilariously filthy Québecois slang, the film is unapologetically Canadian, making it no surprise that it was chosen as our country’s entry for the best foreign language film at this year’s Academy Awards. Whether it has the same success with the Academy as it has had at festivals across the globe is of little consequence, Canadian audiences should already be celebrating the fact that such a filmmaker is creating in this country today.
Reviewed by Evan Arppe.
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