Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Mommy is Xavier Dolan’s thrillingly unique vision of a troubled mother-son relationship. Shot in a 1:1 aspect ratio, the film is a jarring look at a mother facing an ethical dilemma surrounding her compulsive, abnormally grotesque spawn. As a widow, Diane (Anne Dorval) must raise her violent son, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) in a troubled environment, which grows increasingly threatened from a mysterious new neighbor across the street. Dorval’s performance as Diane is marked by tenacity and a profound melancholy; her decision to remove her son from self-imposed institutionalization defines her internal desire to love her son and her external apprehension toward embracing him. Pilon’s role as Steve has been noted as a semi-autobiographical role for Dolan, who has attempted to express himself directly through his films with other works like I Killed My Mother. Here, Dolan infuses the straightforward narrative with a sci-fi conceit in the opening moments, laying the groundwork for an emotionally riveting, daringly original feature.
Steve is known for his violent outbursts and struggles with ADHD after his father’s death. When his mother takes him out of the institution, she must move to home-based work in order to ensure his safety. That involves homeschooling her 15-year old troublemaker, even looking for help from the stuttering neighbor Kyla (Suzanne Clément), who proves to be a welcome adversary to Steve’s abrasive nature. The three form a harsh dynamic that involves Steve’s manipulation of the two both emotionally and physically; this furthers the complication of the film’s central conceit, in that involuntary institutionalization can be enforced by parents through a fictitious Quebec law, the S-14. This allows parents to submit troublesome children to state care without any questions asked. While it’s recommended to Die (the titular mother’s nickname, and a potential excuse for Dolan to mirror his debut feature that hinted at homicidal feelings for his mother) by outsiders, she cannot fathom deserting her child. At least, not after already doing that once in the wake of her husband’s passing.
Dolan’s unusual cinematography adds a portrait-like feel to much of the work. Some will see it as pretentious, but it’s masterful when it’s used as a means of exposing Die’s emotional state. She’s suffocated and trapped by Steve’s destructive nature, so in the moments that her mind and soul feel free, the cinematography proves powerful. Dolan is an intelligent young director (still only 25) that understands the conventions of melodrama and flips them on its head. He utilizes dispassionate actions and builds a sense of regret that overwhelms characters after their harsh decisions; a brilliant physical altercation between Steve and Kyla epitomizes that challenging dichotomy. One commits a horrible act and the other feels isolated, only for the audience to grow conflicted on how they should feel due to what we know about these characters. Yet their actions always remain true to the individuals, and the emotional core of the film swells with immense empathy in its second half. A four-minute montage stands as one of the most affecting scenes I’ve ever encountered. Mommy is such an engrossing work that will leave some cold, others confounded, and a few amazed; regardless, it’s worth seeing.
Grade: ★★★★½ (out of 5)