Xavier Dolan’s Mommy is the fifth feature film by the 26-year-old Quebecois director. that fact alone packs a fair punch. but the film itself is an explosion of high-voltage madness and unrepentant bad taste, replete with white trash and black comedy; it’s an electric shock of melodrama, a death metal chord of tearful rampage. it’s outrageous and brilliant: the daytime soap from hell. dolan just gets carried away with an unstoppable movie riff, and makes everything else seem petty and passionless. this is the second time i have seen mommy since last year in cannes: the first time it shocked me. now it’s further away.
mami is a tremendously acted film, sincere and formally inventive. It lacks the scholarly, arrogant air of Dolan’s earlier, rather insufferable films, such as Laurence Anyways (2012) and Heartbeats (2010). now there’s more substance, more grit, more power: it’s a more real and true movie, and it’s fun. the theme of mothers and children brings this director back to the theme of his first film, I killed my mother (2009). but now it’s the mother who wants to kill.
i’ve seen dramas and sitcoms on tv from britain, australia and the united states satirizing neighbors from hell, but nothing like this really. Anne Dorval stars as Diane, or “Die,” the cash-strapped 40-something single mother whose great test is Ella’s teenage son, Ella’s Steve Ella, a terrific performance from Antoine-Olivier Pilon. he has just been expelled from a special school for setting fire to the cafeteria and causing burns to a fellow student. Now she says she claims to be able to care for and even homeschool Steve until she turns 16 and becomes eligible for the (grim) state-sponsored residential care option. (the legality of this is a fictitious invention).
steve is hyperactive, loud, abusive, with adhd and serious boundary issues. his mother is not so different. And as soon as Steve is handed over to Die’s care, the fireworks start and it all begins. However, something of a miracle occurs: mother and son unexpectedly become friends with their next door neighbor, Kyla (Suzanne Clément), a teacher who suffered a nervous breakdown two years earlier, whose main symptom is a stutter. She offers to tutor Steve and somehow calms him down, forms a relationship with Die, and finds that her stutter is healing.
One of the strangest things about this is the aspect ratio: the shape of the screen. It’s in the “portrait” style of a selfie taken with an upright mobile phone, and to underscore the point, Dolan shows Steve at one point taking such a photo of the three of them. the screen shows its restricted horizons and reflects the compressed emotional power of the drama: a painful squeeze. there’s a slight hint of a straitjacket in that form, a resemblance that will make more sense later. the screen widens at the happiest moments, but both times I’ve seen this movie I didn’t realize it was happening until later.
dorval and pilón have a hilarious comedy double act and I laughed out loud at their brutal and emotional screaming matches, which degenerated into an ambiguously violent embrace of resentful reconciliation. some of the people around me in the auditorium laughed; some were surprised and puzzled, all completely legitimate responses.
Pilon’s face is extraordinary. in an instant, it’s a snarling blonde gargoyle; at another moment, he is superbly, angelically handsome; and, at another moment, it is a baby or a chimpanzee. die has a modified rock chick style of dress that hasn’t changed since her 20s: she’s hot, but she feels people nowadays might be looking for the wrong reasons, and she’s realizing that the badass grind only works when people like you. she is struggling to find work, and money is now an overwhelming concern. her relationship with kyla is heartbreaking. As her bond with Steve becomes more difficult and tenuous and she begins to imagine a future without him, her friendship with the woman across the road becomes more important and her final dialogue is harrowing to watch. .
This movie could have been released last Friday, just before Mother’s Day. although given its explosive and stressful theme, perhaps it is better that it came out a week later. Mommy is seriously, but hilariously out of control.
- This article was modified on Friday, March 20, 2015. Anyway, we mistakenly call Xavier Dolan’s Laurence “Laurence Always”. this has been fixed.