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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Canadian Film Review: Mommy (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Xavier Dolan
Starring: Anne Dorval, Suzanne Clement, Antoine Olivier Pilon

Often in film, family dysfunction is presented as "quirkiness," an eccentricity played for laughs and something that is ultimately harmless and, when push comes to shove, makes the family unit stronger. Xavier Dolan's Mommy goes in a different direction, centering on the kind of dysfunction that is painful and exhausting, on a son whose often violent outbursts can't be anticipated let alone controlled, and on a mother who is so overwhelmed and lacking in support that her love for her son may never be enough. Thematically, Mommy is one of Dolan's most mature and sensitive films (I'd say that Laurence Anyways is the only one that truly gives it a run for its money in that regard), though like all the director's films it can be exhilarating and trying in equal measure - sometimes even within the same scene.

The "mommy" of the title is Diane "Die" Despres (Anne Dorval), a widow whose son, Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon), is being kicked out of his boarding school as the film opens after badly injuring another student. Steve, who suffers from ADHD, is unrepentant about the incident but so is Die, who sees the injury sustained by the other student as the fault of the other student for participating in an act of stupidity. Though it is suggested to Die that her best alternative may be to take advantage of a newly passed law and hand Steve over to the government for what would essentially be permanent detention, Die isn't ready to give up on her boy yet and instead brings him home, intending to home school him, though she's ill-prepared for just how difficult that will be given his issues. Though he can be loving and demonstratively affectionate towards her, he can also be impulsive and violent, the slightest thing setting him off and leading to him destroying the house or physically attacking Die. On one such occasion Die locks herself behind a door while Steve has a meltdown and, as she's waiting for it to pass, the cacophony suddenly goes silent. When she opens the door she finds a considerably calmed down Steve with Kyla (Suzanne Clement), the neighbor from across the street. After it comes out that Kyla is a teacher currently on leave as a result of a debilitating stutter that has developed following some unnamed trauma, Die talks her into agreeing to help with home schooling of Steve so that Die can get back to work to support them.

Steve has good days and bad with Kyla and she struggles to keep him focused on the tasks at hand, but for the most part she's able to curb his more violent impulses after an incident which sees her throwing his own fury back into his face and scaring him so badly that he soils himself. Despite this, Steve and Kyla and Die begin to form something of a family unit (albeit one which excludes Kyla's husband and daughter) and the two women seem to be getting Steve onto a path where he can successfully transition to adulthood until the past comes back to haunt them in the form of a lawsuit brought on by the parents of the boy who was injured at Steve's former school. Things begin to go off the rails as a result, partially due to Die reaching out to a neighbor (Patrick Huard) who has an obvious interest in her and offers to help with the legal case, though it is clearly only a pretense to get her into bed. Though Die is no fool and knows what's up, Steve becomes jealous and overprotective and acts out accordingly, starting a descent that will leave Die having to make drastic decisions about what can - and should - be done with him.

Mommy can be an emotionally/mentally strenuous film to watch, particularly because Dolan pitches it at a tone which emulates the state of mind (and state of the relationship) of Steve and Die. The opening section is dizzying for how intense, loud, and all over the place it is, with Die and Steve going from being overly affectionate with each other to screaming at each other in a matter of seconds, their speech laced with vulgarities and their open manner with each other verging queasily towards incestuousness. It's almost unbearable in its ferocity, but it's effective for the way that it sets the table, so to speak, for the film's exploration of Die and Steve as characters and for the trajectory of the story. Die and Steve are people who feel things passionately, too passionately sometimes (particularly in Steve's case, as he lacks Die's ability to pull himself back and modulate his own behavior), and that bleeds into everything they do and every interaction that they have. Because they both feel so much and never really (or can't) hold back, the relationship between them is extremely volatile and swings savagely from one mode to another in a way that makes it seem like they might destroy each other, even though they love each other. That is why Kyla's presence is key, because her introduction into the dynamic brings a sense of balance to it as she has a calming effect on Die, and a somewhat calming effect on Steve. This isn't to say that Kyla "fixes" things, because it isn't that simple; just that she brings a different dimension to it, one that expands the story in order to touch on something more universal and more about the human need for connection.

The direction that the story ends up taking is perhaps the most surprising thing about Mommy. It plays in the beginning like it's going to be the story of an out of control teenager whose behavior leaves his mother feeling suffocated and trapped (a theme underscored by Dolan's decision to film most of it in the 1:1 aspect ratio that makes the picture resemble a postage stamp), but as it comes to its end you realize that it's really the story of these two women, Die and Kyla, both of whom are so lonely and isolated by their respective issues, and how they become this support for each other during the brief period of time of the film's story. The film's final scene feels as brutal as it does inevitable, but it's the penultimate scene, which is the final scene between Die and Kyla that deliver's the finale's real punch to the gut as the film basically stops for a moment and simply lets the depth of that friendship be felt. The sense of loss that accompanies that and the sense of how important this shared experience has been for both women is haunting and Dorval and Clement are simply marvelous as it unfolds.

Much of Mommy can be described as "marvelous," including the performance of Pilon, who was only 16 when the film was made but delivers in a way that just leaves everything on the mat. Dolan is a director known, at this point, for some fairly indulgent flourishes and Mommy is no different. Some of these moments work wonderfully, including one where Steve appears to grab the edges of the frame and push them out so that the picture suddenly takes on a more common aspect ratio, and a sequence where Die imagines the life that could be and the series of small victories which will see Steve enter into a happy and healthy adult life. Other moments are kind of frustrating, such as a montage that plays out over the entirety of the song "Wonderwall," which feels kind of unnecessary and a bit too on the nose, and the opening title cards which bluntly spell out the fictitious law on which part of the story will hinge, and which will be addressed almost immediately after in the dialogue anyway (and which is followed by one of the hoariest of metaphors: the image of a woman taking an apple from a tree). However, in the end, Mommy is such an affecting and rich film that it's difficult to fault Dolan for sometimes giving into his impulse towards excess. At just 26, and with five features to his credit in six years, he's established himself as one of Canada's most important and exciting contemporary filmmakers and his work as a writer/director continues to grow in terms of emotional depth and maturity. Mommy is a terrific film.

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