Jan 24, 2015
Xavier Dolan's winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes (he shared it with Godard's Goodbye To Language in 3D) is nothing like it sounds. A recently widowed mother, Dianne, also known as Die (the fierce Anne Dorval), has to pick up her teenage son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon, amazing) from a detention center and and take him home because no one else will have him. She is a mess: rude, potty mouthed, unemployed, and as unfiltered and undisciplined as Steve.
Dolan frames the story in the near future, in which Canadian law could allow parents to relinquish their pathologically unruly children to the state with no further legal review. And believe me, during the first 10 minutes you will be rooting for her to do just that. Steve is impossible. Fitfully charming, grating, violent, chaotic, no school or social setting will abide him. But he is not one of those dark kids with homicidal tendencies, like the Newtown or Columbine murderers (perhaps because he doesn't go to school). He is just more than a handful, in the care of a mother who is a handful herself. They've both been on a tailspin since they lost Steve's father to illness. They feed on each other's passionate chaos.
In less inspired, confident hands, this film would be a bitter or too saccharine pill to swallow, but Dolan, who is only in his mid-twenties, is a gifted filmmaker. He elicits spectacular performances from his actors. Even with a 1:1 aspect ratio, which is a perfectly square frame, Mommy is so beautifully shot that two seconds into the movie you forget the format. And in fact, this intimate shape helps convey the isolation, the narrow focus that is required to live with someone who cannot really function in society. The camera and editing are fluid, kinetic and masterful. A sequence in which Steve unleashes his chaos as he arrives home is handled so well, you feel like you are in the room, engulfed by two human tornadoes, and you don't know what just hit you until it's over. But Dolan also achieves moments of tender grace. This fierce story of maternal and filial devotion will test your patience, give you hope and break your heart in equal measure.
Dolan does not shy away from big dramatic gestures as he burrows into the heart of sorrow, chaos and relentless energy which is to be Steve and Die. He introduces a third wheel, Kyla (the excellent Suzanne Clement), a lonely neighbor with a mysterious grief of her own, who completes their family at the expense of her own. Mommy surprises at every turn with its self-assured intensity. One can see the poetic gesture in awarding the Cannes Jury Prize to the old Godard and the young Dolan, for Dolan has the verve and the inventive cinematic flair of the young Godard, but, less in thrall to sheer intellect, he dives deep into waves of emotion.