Xavier Dolan’s Mommy is defiantly a movie for the here and now, something so immediate, its very form resembles Instagram photos or smartphone videos.
This fifth (and best) feature by the 25-year-old Quebec auteur demonstrates a mastery of the lens that would be remarkable at any age. Dolan and cinematographer André Turpin place each volatile image within a square 1:1 format, making the energy within it all the more intense.
And such energy! Arguments between Anne Dorval’s title character and her dangerously unstable teen son, played by the fresh-faced Antoine-Olivier Pilon, rage like an untamed brush fire.
Suzanne Clément from Laurence Anyways, Dolan’s third feature, helps turn the heat up in this incendiary three-hander, which employs so much Quebec Joual that subtitles in both French and English were offered when the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
Mommy isn’t just the dearest Canadian cinema of 2014; it’s one of the best movies of the year, period.
A bizarre prologue locates the film’s place and time as a “fictional Canada” of 2015, with unnecessary expositional gamesmanship regarding Quebec laws on involuntarily institutionalization.
It’s the only false note of this award-winning drama, which shared the Jury Prize with Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language at Cannes 2014. Mommy has also been chosen as Canada’s official submission for the next Oscar honours for Best Foreign Language Film.
Mommy shares a fractious mother-son theme and maternal fixation with I Killed My Mother, Dolan’s 2009 feature debut, although comparisons soon vanish: the emotions in the former are more interior, in the latter considerably more exterior.
Dorval, who starred opposite Dolan in I Killed My Mother, is Diane “Die” Després, a 50ish widowed single mom who has full-time custody of her tinderbox 15-year-old son Steve (Pilon), who has ADHD.
Never one for half measures in word, deed or appearance — she flaunts her tattoos, short skirts and tight jeans — Die opts to take full-time charge of Steve, who has left a juvenile care facility in which he started a fire that grievously wounded another young man.
“Loving people doesn’t save them,” a case worker warns her, but Die is determined to prove all naysayers wrong.
She soon realizes what she’s herself gotten into, as Steve whipsaws from one extreme to the next: scarily violent one moment, inappropriately affectionate the next, and a regular pain in the ass towards the one suitor (Patrick Huard) who seems genuinely interested in her.
Enter Kyla (Clément), who lives across the street from Die and Steve in their working-class Montreal neighborhood. A former teacher, Kyla survived unspecified trauma that left her with a stutter and mental and emotional distress. She cautiously offers to help out with the homeschooling Steve requires, but she also soon discovers what a handful he is.
Friendship and love come easily for these three, but not serenity. The raw and ragged story bristles with hot-blooded energy, with all three actors delivering superb performances that result in a tremendous payoff.
Dolan’s risk-taking also extends to the soundtrack, which he’s quaintly turned into a 1990s jukebox: Counting Crows, Sarah McLachlan, Oasis, Céline Dion, Andrea Bocelli, Dido and more.
It shouldn’t really work, but it does, amazingly so in a scene set to the Oasis hit “Wonderwall,” where a skateboarding and jubilant Steve suddenly breaks the fourth wall by magically expanding the screen with his hands.
The film’s final image brings to mind an iconic scene from François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, a classic of generational distemper that Dolan’s new film would sit happily next to on any true cinephile’s shelf.