Originally unveiled at Cannes last spring, the fifth feature from prolific 25-year-old Canadian Xavier Dolan offers a glimpse of the (now extremely) near future. An opening title card advises that we’re being transported to 2015, but rather than hoverboards and self-lacing shoes awaiting us, there’s simply a new piece of Canadian legislation that allows parents to institutionalize their delinquent children without due process.
One might expect this would instill a sense of Damoclean dread in this speculative world’s wayward youth, but otherwise leave it no visibly different from our own reality. However, Dolan tends to wield stylistic flourishes like Pollock did paint: After toying with shifting aspect ratios to heighten tension in his comparatively conventional thriller, Tom at the Farm, he now adopts the unusual 1:1 format. As viewers orientate themselves with the square frame, Dolan’s rationale for this formal device becomes plainly apparent: he wants us to understand the restrictions that life has placed on his working class characters.
Our introduction to Diane “Die” Després (Anne Dorval) tells us all we need to know about her: Blindsided in a car accident, she’s left bloodied but undaunted. No head wound is going to keep her from hurling expletives or taking a phone call. It’s evident that this widow has learned to roll with a few punches in her 46 years (and one shudders to think of the repercussions for those who took the first shot). Seemingly subsisting on cigarettes, Crown Royal and chewing gum—wearing bedazzled jeans as if they’re battle armor—she’s tough but not hardened. She leads with her heart as much as her chin and, at every turn, exemplifies her belief that love alone is enough to save someone.
It’s Die’s 15-year-old son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) who’s in immediate need of salvation. Having outlived his welcome at a detention facility thanks to the small matters of assault and arson, Steve is welcomed back home by his mother. Beset by severe ADHD and an unnerving attachment disorder, Steve is equally prone to inappropriate PDAs with Die and violent rampages through their cluttered suburban home. His self-destructive behavior seems destined to land him back in an institution but his mother is hell-bent on preserving his freedom.
As Die and Steve struggle to attain some semblance of normalcy—and draw a mousey, stammering neighbor (Suzanne Clément) into their domestic maelstrom—it’s easy to identify the aspects of Dolan’s personality that he’s injected into each of his creations. The negligible impulse control demonstrated by Steve still plagues the auteur multi-hyphenate who seems intent on thumbing his nose at the notion of discipline, choosing instead to indulge his every whim. And, like Die, Dolan’s more than willing to court ridicule should there be even the faintest promise of reward. How many other filmmakers would have the nerve to deploy Celine Dion’s “On ne change pas” without a hint of irony?
Remarkably, Dion’s vocal histrionics seem subdued in comparison to the operatic emotion that Dolan’s simple yet sprawling melodrama generates. One needn’t know that the filmmaker’s own mother shipped him off to boarding school when he was a self-described “rambunctious, belligerent” teen to sense how personal a film this is for Dolan. While the one-time enfant terrible has matured considerably since his 2009 debut, I Killed My Mother, he’s still willing to pick the scabs off old wounds in order to find the passion that serves as the lifeblood of his particularly brash brand of cinema.
Mommy mirrors its central relationship by constantly teetering on the brink of implosion. And while it initially seems too structurally slapdash to stand the test of its overlong runtime, this very precariousness ultimately proves compelling in its own right. Every time the emotional turmoil threatens to prove exhausting, Dolan offers an exhilarating reprieve through another demonstration of bravura filmmaking. (Few of his contemporaries wield slow motion with such assurance or to such great effect.) Dazzling and frustrating in equal measure, Mommy is Dolan’s own problem child. Consequently, it proves fitting that his evident love for it not only saves it but establishes it as a potent reminder that sometimes cinema feels most vital when it’s this raw and messy.
Director: Xavier Dolan
Writer: Xavier Dolan
Cast: Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Suzanne Clément
Release Date: Jan. 23, 2015
Curtis Woloschuk is a member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle, as well as Publications Editor and a programmer for the Vancouver International Film Festival. You can follow him on Twitter.