Uproariously emotional and painfully personal, Mommy is a heart-swelling, heartbreaking, breathtaking piece of cinema: a mature, funny, and tragic mother’s tale featuring real heart-on-sleeve performances that are almost operatic in scale, a story of rare poignancy and insight told with a delightfully nasal Québecois timbre. It’s a film of startling warmth, sizzling sentiment, and suffocating power.
Diane “Die” Després – feisty, sexy, dressing like a teenager in her 40s – is a widow making ends meet with cleaning jobs. Her 15-year-old son, Steve, has ADHD and is aggressively unstable, with boundary issues and an inability to stop swearing, fighting, and touching women. After Steve is discharged from a care facility due to charges of arson, a chaotic and horribly hilarious nightmare ensues: Diane must care for Steve at home. The two befriend a next-door neighbour named Kyla, a lonely schoolteacher who develops an instant rapport with Steve while recovering from a breakdown which left her with a stammer.
Outstanding performances from a trio of regulars create flinty, complex characters that sustain us through a rollercoaster ride between extremes of pain and jubilation. Antoine-Olivier Pilon’s performance as Steve is impressive: when calm, he’s sweet-natured and intelligent; otherwise, he’s agitated, delirious, and entirely out of control. As Kyla, Suzanne Clément (Laurence Anyways) is even better, shy and thoughtful and (mostly) unflappable. And as Mommy, Anne Dorval (I Killed My Mother) is sensational: she’s a Dardenne heroine, fervent, strained, generous, fragile, and brimming with the kind of force-of-nature parental love that drives one to madness.
Xavier Dolan (Tom at the Farm), the precocious 25-year-old auteur and enfant terrible with four features previously under his belt, is one of the world’s most exciting filmmakers. Mommy, which feels like a quantum leap forward in empathy, is the most accomplished consummation of his pop art aspirations, thematic fascinations, and cinematographic realizations. It comes at you baying and rattling, threaded through with an infectious love of full-throttle melodrama, and flinging its energy right back to the cheap seats, thanks to Dolan’s zippy design choices, yet strikes a considered balance between style and substance, drama-queen posturing and heartfelt depth.
Mixing the brash brio of a Pedro Almodóvar comedy and the deep intimacy of an Ingmar Bergman chamber drama, Mommy is a riveting character-driven film of unbridled brilliance. Its very form resembles Instagram photos or smartphone videos; Dolan and his cinematographer André Turpin (Incendies) employ a square 1:1 aspect ratio, allowing them to frame vertical close-up compositions, known as portrait shots. This screen-shape relates to the Diane and Steve’s restricted horizons, and as Dolan explains, “No distraction, no affectations are possible in such constricted space.”
Intense and explosively fresh, Mommy is a blast of pure cinema, defiantly a movie for the here and now, something immediate and contemporaneous. Moments of great tenderness flare up continually in Dolan’s study of a mother with a boundless fountain of tough love and an inextinguishably toxic affection for one’s child. The trailer-trash humour is superbly transgressive. We ask for filmmakers to take us difficult places, and while you may have to brace yourself for Mommy, it is a rewarding experience.
In a year when we had upsetting disappointments from Atom Egoyan and Denys Arcand, previously high-flying Canadian directors, and a massively flawed effort from past master David Cronenberg, it’s a treat to see that the most daring and audacious film comes from Dolan, who is on a path to creating one of the more remarkable film careers in this country’s history. Mommy should be a lock for a Best Foreign Language Film nomination, and it may bring Canada its first Oscar since The Barbarian Invasions in 2004.
Mommy has its flaws: the unnecessarily overwritten prologue expounds an imagined near-future in 2015, a “fictional Canada” where a new law allows a parent to consign any troubled child to an institution, and somewhat leadenly introduces the gun in the first act that must go off in the third. It’s indulgently overlong, losing momentum toward the end when it starts to feel like Dolan can’t bear to leave his characters.
But it’s a pleasure to see acting – and directing – blasting away on all cylinders. Mommy manages to fill each frame with the stuff of life, suffusing every scene with the wonderful horror of being, vividly capturing a range of exhilarating emotions from elation to despair. Two sequences – an impromptu kitchen dance and a shattering montage that evokes the finales of Six Feet Under or Take this Waltz – are among my favourites of the year. It’s Dolan’s finest work yet. Prodigies don’t get much more prodigious than this.