Friday, December 12, 2014


Perhaps Mommy, Canada's 2014 Oscar submission, is the ultimate therapy through filmmaking endeavor.  Clearly, 25-year-old Quebecois wunderkind Xavier Dolan is working out deeply wrought  personal issues with his latest feature, a beautifully alive, utterly heartbreaking and vibrantly original piece of work, returning to a theme that has dominated his films since the beginning-- the relationship between mothers and sons.  Dolan's first feature-- 2009's I Killed My Mother-- traversed similar terrain and unleashed a promising new discovery.  Mommy expressively shows the advances Dolan has made formally as a director and writer and further establishes a talent whose cinematic voice has been sharpened to an entirely and exciting new level.  For that and for so much more, Mommy feels like essential viewing.

Mommy grabs your attention from the very beginning.  The first thing one is likely to notice is how different it looks.  Dolan shot the film in a 1.1 aspect ratio-- a square (though it looks more rectangular on the big screen) forcing the audience to stare right dab in the center of the screen.  At first it's rather jarring, but the visual conceit puts you right in the center of the turbulent space of Diana (Anne Dorval) and her troubled son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), and their devastatingly lived-in dynamic.  In truth, with the emotional fireworks on display, and all the pain and wonder attached to them, Mommy can't at all be contained in a caged box-- they couldn't even if Dolan had shot the film in CinemaScope and the film were shown on the largest screens in the world.  Yet that closeness, that intense intimacy bonds the film in such an unusual and euphoric way that even if some of cinematogrpher André Turpin's compositions seem condensed or slighted, the emotional connection to the characters and the performers playing them within an inch of their lives register so deeply and so honestly, the experience is never distracting or unwelcome.

And Mommy is an experience.  Dolan opens the film with on-screen text explaining that in a not-too distant 2015 version of Canada, a new law has been established that a parent can choose to commit their children to state care without court interference.  Then we meet Diana, from the start in a setting of crisis-- as Dolan introduces her with her car getting smashed.  She's of tough stock, we learn immediately, and bounces right up, bloody and fuming, she has bigger things to deal with-- picking up Steve, her delinquent 15-year-old son from a special care facility after he sets fire to the cafeteria.  Right away, rich character details are informed-- the way Diana signs release papers with the moniker of her nickname "Die" and the way Steve, in all his volatile hyper-active charisma (heard before he's seen)-- so much so that you can practically see the umbilical chord, so attached, so tethered are mother and son.  The duo, perhaps fully knowing that happily ever after likely isn't in the cards go home in the hopes of starting over, doing it right.  What follows is one of the most assaultive and humane dissections of a mother-son relationship presented on screen in a long time, perhaps ever.

The screaming matches between Die and Steve spew with lived-in anger and reality-soaked resentment, but are always underlined with tenderness and affection.  They're both misfits, two people who don't (or can't) assimilate into "normal" society-- Dad died three years prior.  Certainly mental illness is part of the story-- for Steve and for Die too.  Die is herself an utter force of nature with her tacky painted jeans, bleached hair and vulgar countenance-- Dorval goes all in with terrific and mighty gusto, inserting an intelligence, hard edge and loving calculation into Die in a performance that's completely unshakeable.  Pilon matches every step, with a delicately modulated performance that switches on a dime from tender to sociopath.

While Mommy never adheres to simple plot mechanics, the film drives into something more and inescapably rich territory with the entrance of Kyla (Suzanne Clément), Die and Steve's mousy new neighbor.  Kyla, wounded and haunted by demons of her own, starts to become a part of the family as she becomes Steve's home school teacher and actually starts to get through to him-- fittingly, it takes a violent and harshly inappropriate encounter for that to happen.  Like Die and Steve, Kyla is an outsider as well, sleepwalking through the civility of day to day ordinariness.  Clément, a Dolan regular (as is Dorval) tackles the tricky slope of her character with an aplomb that's unpredictable and alive.  For a while, everything goes joyfully-- in Mommy's most irresistible sequence, Oasis' "Wonderworld" blasts the soundtrack as if the song had never had a purpose before.    It may not last (and it doesn't), may only feel as though it were a dream, but is defining and blisteringly visceral.

Dolan creates an unpretentious lyricism forming a great high and posits Mommy an utterly sublime piece of pop poetry.  Mommy doesn't drag, nor is it a saccharine ode of a mother's love for her child (Die is unwavering and uncompromising, but is no angel either) and even while its 139-minute running time is intimating, Dolan paces the film brilliantly.  It flows, it sings with heartbreaking honesty and is often very funny and nearly always rewarding.  There are things that are quibble-worthy-- for instance, the new world Canadian law that opens the picture gives a whiff of artificial mischief the movie never needed and for sure, certain segments of the film could have been shaved off here and there-- but its impact is earned, the emotion is real.  Mommy lives within the confines of the most difficult and messy areas of coming-of-age and adulthood yet has a lightness, an infectiousness to it as well-- it's easy to fall in love with these characters.

Hopefully what will transpire is a healthy uptick in Dolan's filmmaking stock.  While Mommy is his fifth feature and he's won multiple awards at Cannes and other festivals for past work (Laurence Anyways, Tom at the Farm), Dolan is hardly well-known in the States.  Part of that has to do with the state of foreign-language features in this country-- how little they are marketed and expanded.  Part is that Dolan's previous films have had wobbly releases here to begin with (I'm still not sure I Killed My Mother actually got a U.S. release despite an award from Cannes and being Canada's 2009 Oscar submission)-- some of his work is streaming on Netflix, so there's that.  However, the vibrant, invigorating, next-level accomplishment of Mommy (which won the Jury Prize at Cannes this year-- Dolan shared the prize with Jean-Luc Godard and his Goodbye to Language) is revelatory and worthy of cinematic celebration.  

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