Mommy - Film Review
Tense French-Canadian drama explores the fraught relationship between a mother and her violent son
As the enfant terrible of French-Canadian cinema, it’s fitting that Xavier Dolan’s debut, 2009’s I Killed My Mother, saw him symbolically offing his mum. Six years on from that film’s success at Cannes, where it received an eight-minute standing ovation, he’s returning to the issues that made his name with undimmed energy: only this time, it seems, he’s come down from the naughty step and is ready to apologise.
Mommy, the 25-year-old prodigy’s fifth film, concerns working-class mum Die (Anne Dorval, who starred in I Killed My Mother) and her attempts to keep her violent outburst-prone, ADHD-suffering teenage son Steve (17-year-old Antoine Olivier Pilon) out of trouble with the law. Early on, we’re presented with a philosophical quandary. “Loving people doesn’t save them,” says the head of a correctional facility Steve has just been expelled from after setting fire to the cafeteria. “Sceptics,” retorts Die with a dragon-like puff of cigarette smoke, “will be proven wrong.”
Is she right? Despite the occasional lurch into melodrama, Dolan keeps us guessing right to the end of this deeply felt, electrically charged movie. Steve, whose violent tendencies are established early on in a scene where he terrorises his mother at home, is also a devoted son – perhaps too devoted – and strangely likeable sort. His prospects seem to improve when his neighbour Kyla, a lonely housewife with a stutter and a painful secret, strikes up an unlikely bond with mother and son. But their happiness is jeopardised by Die’s inability to hold down a job, and a lawsuit that threatens to put the youngster away for a long time.
Dolan handles this potentially bleak material with virtuoso style, bringing shades of Martin Scorsese’s bulldozing energy to the film’s storytelling rhythms, and lashings of director Gus Van Sant’s outsider-empathy in the characters. There’s even, as in one sequence where Steve slow motion-dances with a trolley, some of The Tree Of Life director Terrence Malick’s lyrical eye to this terrifically tense, poignant film, which is presented intimately in 1:1 aspect ratio – a classic square image – and widened during moments of optimism. It’s also darkly, daringly funny: another scene of bizarre familial bonding has Steve, wearing eyeliner, dancing to Celine Dion with his mum and Kyla, who is hammered and starts singing along. “Shout! She’s our fucking national treasure,” yells Steve triumphantly. His joy is not to last, you feel, as Mommy builds inexorably towards a heartrending climax.
But for all of Steve’s livewire energy, the hero of Mommy is never in doubt. Anne Dorval is simply amazing as the indomitable Die, who refuses to cut the apron strings even as they threaten to choke the life out of her. In her and Kyla, the film’s second maternal figure, Dolan pays glowing tribute to the unbreakable bonds of motherhood. Because even twisted little bastards deserve love.