Spell-binding performances power filmmaker Xavier Dolan’s energetic fifth feature.
At the grand old age of 25, Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan is already making movies that put filmmakers twice his age to shame. With Mommy, his Cannes Jury Prize-winning drama in which the filmmaker serves as writer, director, producer, editor and costume designer, Dolan firmly establishes himself as the contemporary and future face of world cinema. In a sentence, Mommy is a miracle of filmmaking—a bravura work that depicts the explosive nature of dysfunctional families as well as the hardships parents endure to protect their children. It’s a film that mesmerizes with its style, twisted humor, gut-wrenching emotion and unforgettable performances. It left me emotionally-drained yet jubilant.
Dolan’s blistering Montreal-set melodrama chronicles the story of Diane (Anne Dorval), a jobless blue-collar widow whose outrageous white-trash style is only trumped by her ferocious attitude. Diane’s life takes a turn when her violent 15-year-old son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) is kicked out of a juvenile facility for nearly burning another teen to death. With barely enough money to feed the both of them, Diane takes a variety of jobs (including cleaning rich people’s bathrooms) to make ends meet while also dealing with Steve’s sudden outbursts and unpredictable behavior. Hope arrives when their neighbor Kyla (Suzanne Clément), a shy housewife (and former teacher) with her own emotional baggage, decides to help Diane by home-schooling Steve. Although Kyla’s appearance initially causes Steve to strike against her—he constantly torments her for her stutter—she soon wins his respect and the trio become a unit. But is this bout of happiness here to stay or will Steve’s increasingly violent behavior and grasp on sanity prove too hard to control? As Diane says, “Life with Steve is a roll of dice. You get lucky, until you don’t.”
The first thing you’ll notice about Mommy is the unusual 1:1 aspect ratio that Dolan and cinematographer André Turpin choose to shoot the film in. Although the square image (think Instagram) is distracting at first, the aspect ratio immensely aids the intimate story Dolan is telling, helping us identify with the claustrophobic world view of his characters. The 1:1 aspect ratio makes even more of an impact when he literally expands the screen to a traditional 1.85 ratio during specific scenes (which I won’t disclose). Equally inspired are Dolan’s soundtrack selections which run the gamut from Celine Dion to Oasis to Dido, Lana Del Ray and even Eiffel 65, rendering the film timeless and accessible. You’ll never listen to Oasis’ “Wonderwall” the same way ever again. Ultimately, however, it’s his performers—Dorval, Pilon and Clément—who deserve the most credit. Their emotionally unhinged performances give the film its pulse and keep Dolan’s wild and tragicomic sensory experience grounded.
Running time: 139 minutes
Companies: Roadside Attractions
Rating: R for language throughout, sexual references and some violence