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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