Frenetic 'Mommy' Tells An Emotional Story Of A Troubled Mother-Son Bond
Watching French-Canadian film Mommy isn't for the faint of heart. It's an intense and raw emotional journey into the difficult relationship between a beleaguered mother and her disturbed teenage son that pays off in such a way that you can't help but find yourself sitting in quiet contemplation long after the end credits roll.
Mommy comes from the mind of the 25-year-old wunderkind director Xavier Dolan, who at such a young age already has five feature films under his belt. This particular film shared the Jury Prize with Jean-Luc Goddard's Goodbye to Language 3D at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, and managed to elicit a 13-minute standing ovation from the audience.
In Dolan's 2009 film, I Killed My Mother, he also focused on the bond between a mother and son, but it came from the point of view of the son. In Mommy, he does a bit of the opposite, where he has the audience empathize with the mother, Diane "Die" Després (Anne Dorval) in how she has to deal with her sometimes loving and sometimes terrifying and violent 15-year-old son Steve Després (Antoine Olivier Pilon).
Dolan has created a futuristic Canada in Mommy, where the country has enacted a new law (that doesn't really exist in real life) that allows parents to involuntarily commit their children to mental hospitals without having to go through the court system. This fact alone starts the film, and foreshadows a hard decision Die must make down the road.
Die enters the film as a working class, widowed mother who just like her son will say whatever comes to mind without much of a filter. She arrives at a boarding school to pick up Steve, who's been kicked out for setting the school cafeteria on fire. Die has plans to take him back home to live with her and homeschool him. She signs the release forms by dotting the "I" on her name with a heart, writing from a pen that's hooked onto a barrage of sparkly keychains. This is just a hint that both she and her son have some growing up to do.
Blonde-haired and blue-eyed Steve can go from looking angelic to devilish in the blink of an eye based on whatever mood he's in. Even though Die is as tough as nails on the exterior, she ends up cowering to Steve when he goes through manic professions of love by gifting her with a gold necklace to bursting into violent outbursts so terrifying that Die's left sobbing behind a door she's locked to protect herself. Their relationship is equal parts loving and unnerving with some Oedipal-esque undertones.
It isn't until their stammering and shy neighbor Kyla (Suzanne Clément)—who stares out her windows in ennui over her boring life with her nuclear family—strikes up a friendship with the family that the dynamic changes. Kyla, who was once a teacher, chooses to take on the harrowing task of homeschooling Steve. And with that, she also adopts the drama between the family members in the process.
It's never quite clear what illness Kyla suffers from (after losing her ability to speak without stuttering) or what mental problems Steve has (they briefly mention ADHD but it's clearly much more than that), but Dolan seems to care very little about explaining that. Instead, he's more entranced with what comes out of this peculiar relationship between the trio. And at times, it feels like Dolan wants to express this through a series of montages that are very much like watching a series of music videos. In one particular scene, we see Steve ride a shopping cart alone through the streets while an entire Counting Crows song plays in the background. It's a little hokey, but at the same time, we can't help but feel this does give some insight into Steve's loneliness, showing us that he's still just a kid.
Dolan also throws caution to the wind not just with his storytelling style, but also cinematically. He chose to shoot Mommy in an unusual 1:1 aspect ratio, a perfect square, which leaves black bars running along the sides of the movie theater screen, almost as if you're watching a YouTube video where someone has shot it vertically instead of horizontally. We get it that Dolan wants to use this as a metaphor for the claustrophobic and intense nature of the mother-son relationship, but it seems like it's a bit much just to prove this point that is already explained through the acting and plot. There's even a brief moment where we're relieved from the square box to a widescreen view, and we wonder why Dolan didn't do this all along. But we do admit that at times, the 1:1 aspect ratio does make us focus on the intimate and vulnerable facial expressions of the actors.
Even though Mommy could very much play out like a made-for-TV Lifetime movie due to some saccharine montages, Dolan makes his audience ride the film out with a rollercoaster of emotions, whipping us back and forth. There is never a long-lasting moment where any of us can truly relax, just like for Die. For people who deal with family members with mental issues, Dolan actually paints a very realistic and heartbreaking picture. We become so attached to the characters that we can do nothing but hope for the best and expect the worst. It's in this that Dolan succeeds in leaving us just as floored as Die is.
'Mommy' opens in theaters today at the ArcLight Hollywood and Landmark Theatres in Westwood.