Review by Paul Stathakis | October 17, 2014

Mommy dearest

Mom­my” is an explo­sive dra­ma from Que­bec native Xavier Dolan who at the age of 25 is mak­ing quite a name for him­self. His lat­est dra­ma exam­ines the tumul­tuous rela­tion­ship between a wid­owed moth­er, Diane (played by Anne Dor­val), and her son Steve (Antoine-Olivi­er Pilon) who has a severe case of ADHD. The atmos­phere in their home is fright­en­ing. The two argue, using strong lan­guage. At one point, a ver­bal dis­agree­ment becomes vio­lent. How­ev­er, a scene lat­er, “Mom­my” returns to being a warm, human film again. Dolan uses this tech­nique on and off through­out the film, cre­at­ing a cin­e­mat­ic expe­ri­ence that is at once unset­tling and touch­ing. We feel the mom’s pain as much as we feel the boy’s. Then we have Kyla (Suzanne Clement), their curi­ous but friend­ly neigh­bour, who tries hard to help them as she also tries to help her­self in the process. Look no fur­ther for a film that will remain in your thoughts, make you laugh, cry, and think. “Mom­my” is one of this year’s very best.

Mom­my” is a film made for the big screen. Dolan exper­i­ments with the film’s pic­ture aspect ratio which, for the most part, is pre­sent­ed in 1:1 with the excep­tion of one key sequence that clev­er­ly expands to widescreen. It’s a moment in which the walls begin to look as though they’re not clos­ing in on the cen­tral char­ac­ters any­more. It sug­gests that Dolan is giv­ing his char­ac­ters more room to breathe. It’s inge­nious because it has the exact same effect on the spec­ta­tor. There’s a sense of free­dom in the open­ness of the 16:9 aspect ratio. The eyes of the view­er are less restrict­ed and both the body and the mind feel instant­ly lib­er­at­ed. It’s not hard to notice the sides of the screen expand­ing when they do but it is hard to watch as they close back in min­utes lat­er. We get a glimpse of hope from the mother’s per­spec­tive before return­ing to a tighter real­i­ty.

The per­for­mances are just as arrest­ing with Antoine-Olivi­er Pilon shin­ing as a boy with an uncon­trol­lable lev­el of hyper­ac­tiv­i­ty. He acts impul­sive­ly, often say­ing the wrong things at the wrong time and throw­ing tantrums. Steve is con­sumed by anger. He has no desire to abide by the law and he takes vir­tu­al­ly noth­ing seri­ous­ly. In one of the films’ more har­row­ing scenes, his moth­er asks him to behave as he accom­pa­nies her on a date night at a karaoke bar with a neigh­bour­hood friend (Patrick Huard) with ties to the court. He’s her only chance at sav­ing Steve and her­self from a del­i­cate and cost­ly law­suit. Steve, feel­ing neglect­ed, takes to the podi­um to sing his ver­sion of Andrea Bocelli’s “Vivo per lei.” The bold move draws a neg­a­tive reac­tion from the crowd. They heck­le and pro­voke Steve rather than cheer him on. This kind of response push­es Steve to his lim­its, incit­ing yet anoth­er aggres­sive reac­tion that fur­ther com­pli­cates things. Suzanne Clement is also ter­rif­ic in the role of Kyla. She has a speech imped­i­ment that is nev­er ful­ly addressed but one which may be relat­ed to her job as a teacher. We learn that she is on a sab­bat­i­cal but we’re left to won­der why. Could she have expe­ri­enced a ner­vous break­down? Could it pos­si­bly have some­thing to do with her feel­ing like a pris­on­er in her own home? Her dis­tant rela­tion­ship with her own daugh­ter and hus­band does raise quite a few ques­tions. A piv­otal scene in which she lets her tem­pera­ment be shown implies that she is, in fact, har­bour­ing anger.

Though “Mom­my” may sound like 139 min­utes of pure agony at the movies, it is not entire­ly with­out sweet moments. There’s a scene in which Diane and Kyla con­verse open­ly about them­selves. One joke has them laugh­ing to the point of cry­ing. The scene, tak­ing place in a dim­ly-lit but cosy kitchen, is flaw­less­ly framed. Add to that a mild thun­der­storm out­side and you have a pic­ture-per­fect moment that feels aston­ish­ing­ly real. Anoth­er ten­der moment involves Diane, Kyla, and Steve danc­ing togeth­er in the kitchen to one of Celine Dion’s most cel­e­brat­ed songs, “On Ne Change Pas.” Steve asks his moth­er and Kyla to let loose and to embrace their nation­al hero, refer­ring to Dion who is per­haps Quebec’s most icon­ic singer of all time.

Dor­val embod­ies the very spir­it of the endur­ing moth­er who has seen and been through a great deal over the years. She deliv­ers a bit­ter-sweet per­for­mance, her eyes and face con­vey­ing pain, her smile opti­mism. But beneath her “tough moth­er” per­sona is a woman who is afraid and in dire need of help. She’s lone­ly, des­per­ate, almost out of options, and Dolan gives her lit­tle oppor­tu­ni­ty to find any solace. Diane is unable to escape from her mis­eries and, in a sense, nei­ther are any of the oth­er char­ac­ters. We under­stand that their suf­fer­ing will con­tin­ue. Inter­est­ing­ly, two Hol­ly­wood films are briefly ref­er­enced in “Mom­my”: “Scar­face” and “Rocky.” Both are cen­tred on char­ac­ters who build from the bot­tom up and, in the end, fall short. The par­al­lel between those char­ac­ters and the ones in “Mom­my” is evi­dent. Towards the end of the film, it looks as though every­thing might hap­pi­ly be resolved but that is not the case. Every­one los­es in their own respec­tive way just as they begin to think they’re final­ly start­ing to win.

 

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