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MOMMY (2014) review

February 2, 2015

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written by: Xavier Dolan
produced by: Xavier Dolan and Nancy Grant
directed by: Xavier Dolan
rating: R (for language throughout, sexual references and violence)
runtime: 138 min.
U.S. release date: August 29, 2014 (Telluride Film Festival) & January 30, 2015 (wide)

 

Near the end of last year I watched “Mommy” at the recommendation of a fellow Chicago film critic who had stressed I see this Canadian drama before any year-end voting or list compilation. He was right. Writer/director Xavier Dolan’s latest wound up in the number four slot of my Top Ten list. This captivating and impressive film is akin to my experience with “Ida”, my number one, in that I consider it among my cinematic discoveries from last year. I had heard of Dolan but hadn’t seen any of his films yet. Having seen “Mommy”, I’m definitely interested in visiting his previous films.

“Mommy” takes place in a fictionalized near-future Canada, where the S-14 law gives parents the option to commit their problem children into a state care facility without due process. On-screen text explains this as set-up for Dolan’s audience, but that’s really the only fictionalized aspect we get out of the his story. The rest feels about as authentic and real as imaginable – maybe too real.

 

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The film opens with widowed single mother Diane “Die” Després (Anne Dorval) picking up her delinquent teenage son Steve O’Connor Després (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) from a state care facility. Having set the cafeteria on fire, they’ve had enough of the explosive young man and are left with returning him back to the care of his mother. With Steve being a button-pushing, power keg racist, you get the idea that Die has heard it all before. The recent loss of her job has already stressed her out, but now Die has her son – with all his rage, carnal desires and psychotic impulses – to contend with. She now has to figure out homeschooling for him while trying to figure out what kind of work she can land. Steve seems somewhat calmed by her presence, but it becomes rapidly clear that he’s become too much for her to handle.

Die is a strong lioness looking after her misfit cub. The sweet-faced Steve can be adoring toward his mother, but even that temperament is like awaiting the end result of a lit fuse. Regardless, she is determined to defend him from the criticism of others and save him from himself. Rarely does she succeed though.

Their Oedipal dynamic changes when a strange neighbor is added to their dysfunctional mix. Kyla (Suzanne Clément), a seemingly shy and stammering former high school teacher, lives across the street from Die and Steve with her family. Kyla forms a gradual relationship with both Die and Steve and although we’re not told much about her past, one gets the idea that there’s a specific reason why she’s currently no longer teaching. Together, Die and Kyla seem to form an unlikely maternal support for Steve, who seems to respond to such attention. Yet the two women and Dolan’s audience know that Steve can erupt at any moment, which leaves us wondering what can really be done for the boy to truly help him.

 

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What becomes immediately noticeable is the look of “Mommy”. The majority of the film covers only a small portion of the screen, as if we’re seeing the story through a perfect square. It may take some getting used to the 1:1 aspect ratio, but it’s obvious Dolan is going for a claustrophobic, pressured feel for both the characters and viewers. At times, the screen does open up into a widescreen format and it serves a liberating albeit short-lived purpose. In an atmosphere filled with stress and tension, these moments add welcome relief, often elevated by a fittingly euphoric song or score.

That aesthetic decision is memorable, but what will you’ll revisit “Mommy” for is the tremendous acting and exceptional screenplay. This is especially true if you go in as a Dolan virgin, like I did. He’s worked with these actors in his previous films and it’s easy to see why, just as it’s easy to see why the actors would repeatedly work with such the gifted 25 year-old writer/director.

Each of the three main actors command the screen by giving themselves fully to their own unique character. That seems like a given, right? One would hope that would be obvious in any actor we see on-screen, but when actors are this good, you’re reminded that it’s kind of rare to find. It helps that these roles are so different, demanding a certain tone and set of skills from each actor, but the more time we spend with them the more it becomes clear how Dolan got the casting just right here.

 

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Dorval plays the fortysomething mother, who’s not quite ready to admit her fading sex appeal while strutting around in a teen’s wardrobe, as one who does everything she can to keep it herself and her son together. Die tries to hide her desperation, loneliness and exasperation, but Dorval conveys such a transparent vulnerability that increasingly pulls the audience in as the film unfolds. I found myself both appalled by and rooting for her incorrigible and stubborn character. The role of Steven is a tricky one in that it could be portrayed as over-the-top, bordering on either a cartoonish or melodramatic behavior, but Pilon’s energy and manic unpredictability really grabbed my attention, from his introduction up to the film’s somewhat open ending. The two of them together is something to behold. They can bring out each other’s sweet side and always ignite some emotionally damaging moments. At times, they can manage each other just fine, while other times Die is fearing for her life as Steve is suffocating emotionally. Their abrasive/abusive mother-son relationship will resonate for some and maybe hit too close to home for others.

When Clément’s stuttering Kyla enters their lives, we’re introduced to the character who will eventually apply emotional glue to the story. It doesn’t seem that way at first, since it’s a challenge to put a finger on who Kyla is and what motivates her. Dolan’s story truly benefits from the nuances Clément offers Kyla. She may have fewer lines than Die and Steve (which offsets nicely, since the two are motormouths) combined, but her silence communicates a past hurt and current hesitation. One of the best scenes though comes during her first homeschooling lesson that she offers Steve. You won’t discount Kyla as a mousie type when you see her put Steve in his place after he disrespects her. It’s a revealing scene that shows a side to both characters we had not yet discovered up until then. The performances by each of these fine actors definitely found me wanting to dig up their previous work. I’ll add their films to my ever-growing list.

I’m still pondering the ending of “Mommy”, just as much as I’m reflecting on certain conversations from the film. Whatever decision I come up with regarding Dolan’s conclusion, what remains prominent and provocative was his resonating characterization and challenging story. Out of the many films that I had seen in 2014, I will always remember and empathize with Die, Steve and Kayla.

 

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RATING: ****

 

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