Xavier Dolan is a 25-year-old writer and director from Canada. He’s already produced of five movies and won 36 awards in festivals ranging from Toronto to Cannes. The phenomenal young filmmaker is back this year with Mommy. The film won the Jury Prize at the last Cannes Film Festival and was recently selected to compete in the Best Foreign Language Film category for Canada at the 2015 Oscars ceremony.
To be clear, the mostly dithyrambic echoes you may have heard from critics since the press screening at last year’s Cannes are true. Mommy represents something totally refreshing. As with his previous movies, Dolan uses old recipes in a new way to produce something original.
Mommy is the story of Diane Després (Anne Dorval), a feisty widowed single mom who finds herself burdened with the full-time custody of her unpredictable 15-year-old ADHD son, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon). As they struggle to make ends meet, Kyla (Suzanne Clément), the peculiar new neighbor across the street, offers her help. Together, they find a new sense of balance as they struggle to regain hope: pure melodrama.
I’m not usually comfortable with melodramatics movies. I have a deep aversion for tearful or heartbreaking narratives full of pathos that conclude with abrupt and artificial happy endings. Nonetheless, some directors transcend this genre. Xavier Dolan, with his youthful brashness, is definitely one of them. Although Mommy succeeds in provoking a whirlwind of feelings, a brilliant energy across the movie tempers the pathos with positivity.
Dolan’s universe is stylized with flashes of color inspired by pop art, slow motion, an omnipresent modern score and a square (1:1) frame. These aesthetic choices are Dolan’s stamp on Mommy; even when they change, they retain his fingerprints. For example, the frame changes from 1:1 to a standard CinemaScope frame (2:35:1) twice during the film. I can’t explain Dolan’s choice without spoiling the story, but I can say the shift works well in context and fits with his use of visual motif.
I appreciate when I see on the screen how intimately a director involves himself in his films. Dolan’s movies sweat with his personality. You can easily recognize his style as he translates all his visual and directorial energy to his actors. That strong sense of authorship is a point worthy of reproach for some critics – just ask anyone who doesn’t like Wes Anderson’s movies – but I find Dolan’s style appealing.
This energy most obviously manifests through cinematographer André Turpin’s camera movements. Long shots and shaky-cam are usually used to depict action in other films, but Dolan and Turpin use them here to reinforce sudden bursts of emotion. In other scenes, the camera’s motions increase in amplitude and fluidity to emphasize Steve’s sense of freedom; the skateboard and the shopping cart sequences use this technique particularly well.
The director is responsible for more than just managing the shots, however; his job also requires that he get the best possible turns from his actors. And Dolan, who began his career as a child actor, has an intimate understanding of the process. He proves once again that he has talent for his new métier as all three of his main actors deliver outstanding performances.
Dolan works with Anne Dorval and Suzanne Clément to add a sensitive touch to the movie. Dorval emotes from a wide palette of thoughts and feelings that embody Diane’s position as a tormented mother. Conversely, Clément is a firm counterbalance to the volatile relationship between Diane and Steve. Antoine-Olivier Pilon’s talent explodes onscreen as he embraces every facet of his extremely demanding character; working through Steve’s violent episodes while maintaining a sense of psychological realism isn’t easy, but Pilon is up to the task.
The main theme of the story is the dynamic between mother and son. Even as Steve’s condition means he’s sometimes totally out of control, Diane always tries maintain their relationship. Their back-and-forth seems like a one-way street. But maybe Steve is there for Diane, too? Maybe she hopes that her son, despite his health problems, can help her build a more stable life. Either way, the message is clear: love must always overcome madness.
Although Mommy is a melodrama, it also thrives as a comedy. Dolan makes you laugh while evoking powerful empathic reactions. In one scene, the main characters dance to Canadian icon Céline Dion in Diane’s kitchen. Even though Steve’s story is composed of tragic events, humor keeps the quieter moments lighthearted and fun.
Mommy is an intense movie. It acts on you like a storm, an approach that may leave some audiences exhausted by the film’s conclusion. But that’s where your come in: you can either plunge into Dolan’s kinetic world, or spare yourself the inevitable tears. You know what choice I made, and I don’t regret it for a second.
Movie Verdict: Win
Mommy doesn’t have a U.S. wide release date yet. However, it will be shown at the Virginia Film Festival and at the American Film Institute Festival next week.