You probably won’t read a single review of Xavier Dolan’s Mommy that doesn’t mention the fact that, at only 25 years of age, the Quebecois filmmaker already has five critically acclaimed movies under his belt. You might also be unable to find a review that doesn’t mention the fact that he directs, writes, produces, designs the costumes, and often acts in his own movies. Or a review that fails to comments on his “enfant terrible” antics, whether it refers to his comments about sharing a Jury Prize with Jean-Luc Godard at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, or his complaints about his movie failing to make the Foreign Language Film Oscar shortlist. These often mentioned facts have limited the conversation about this director and his movies, but they have been repeated ad nauseam for a reason. They illustrate what is Dolan’s most unique characteristic as a filmmaker: his overindulgence.
Influenced by the lush saturation of Wong Kar-wai, and the love for melodrama of Pedro Almodovar, the most common set pieces in Dolan’s movies are musical interludes filled with slow motion shots and edited with the propulsion of a pop music video. Mommy features a couple of these interludes, which end up being some of the most memorable and touching moments of the movie precisely because, being sequences that are somewhat removed from the main narrative, they allow Dolan to flex his directorial muscles in the most indulgent way. He has chosen to shoot the movie in a 1:1 aspect ratio, which makes the screen completely square (the shape of an Instagram picture is the most common analogy). This is an incredibly tight frame. It illustrates the claustrophobic environment at the center of this story, but it supports a very limited amount of compositions. It’s thanks to Dolan’s knack for the visuals that the movie doesn’t crack while consisting basically out of close-ups, but while there are moments in which Dolan’s extravagance can do wonders for some sequences, it can’t keep it up for a whole 140 minute movie.
Before I go further, let me explain what the movie is about. Regular Dolan collaborator Anne Dorval stars as Diane (or “Die”), a middle-aged widow that must deal with the fact that her teenage son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) is moving in with her. Steve is coming back home because he got kicked out of the specialized school he was attending after causing a fire in the cafeteria. He is a handful. He has ADHD, and he is constantly cursing and insulting everyone around him, not to mention his short temper, which makes him prone to violent outbursts. His brutal personality can only by matched by his tough-as-nails tiger mom. Physically, Die isn’t nearly as strong as the athletic Steve, but the oedipal nature of their relationship gives her enough of an emotional edge to control the wild child.
Thrown into this mix is Kyla (Suzanne Clement), the shy neighbor from across the street. Kyla used to work as a teacher, but stopped working a couple years ago, around the same time that she started having trouble talking. It is a little weird when this quiet woman starts to spend time with Steve and Diane, but the abrasive pair seem to feel especially fond of her. While Diane struggles to find (and keep) a job that will provide the family with a steady income, Kyla starts tutoring Steve in order to help him graduate high school. They form a fascinating, if unlikely, trio, and thanks in no small part to the outstanding performances by the three leads. As Steve, Pilon pulls off an impressive act of balancing irritating childishness and charisma. Clement brings unexpected texture and realism to her character, avoiding the acting disaster that the speech impediment angle was professing. And Dorval is more than electric, channeling some of the fiercest women of cinema history in a performance of the highest melodramatic calibre.
Despite the amazing performances, and the enjoyably luscious direction, Mommy‘s problems announce themselves right from the start. In a couple of opening title cards, Dolan lets us know that this movie is -technically speaking- a science fiction fantasy. He presents us with a “fictitious Canada” in order to present the idea that the Canadian government created a law that lets people easily renounce to their kids if they feel like they are too problematic. I must admit that I am a little fascinated with the fact that Dolan presents us with this piece of information right off the bat. Once we know that this law exists in the world of the movie, it’s all too obvious where the movie is heading. That doesn’t mean that the emotional payoff of the film doesn’t work, because it does, but it makes me question Dolan’s interest in the story he was telling as far as the plot was concerned.
This is a question that always comes up when you discuss prolific directors. Is Dolan rushing through his job, and thus, sacrificing some parts of his process? If he is, then the part that’s suffering is probably the script. Despite all the great moments in Mommy, the movie didn’t seem to fully come together for me. The emotions that Die and Steve are going through are palpable. The way they scream at each other, the unstoppable intensity of Pilon’s forward march through the scene, and the way Dorval’s tough woman façade breaks behind her tearful eyes are as big as the overdramatic emotions Dolan is trying to get at. On a moment-to-moment basis, Mommy works fantastically well. It’s when we go from scene to the next that the problems amount. The characters seem to only inhabit the scene they’re in at one specific moment, as if what had happened before didn’t really affect them that much.
Is Dolan trying to get at a message about people not being able to perceive their own path to change, or is this just an editing problem? Two and a half hours is too long for this movie, but I felt like it was much longer than it actually is. Funny enough, I never felt the need to check my watch during a scene, because most scenes are very well constructed and directed, but at a certain point, I checked the time during almost every time a new scene started. Mommy is a disjointed movie. It’s made out of some pretty amazing parts, and even though they don’t seem to come together and form something greater, they are amazing enough to make it a worthy experience.
Grade: 6 out of 10