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AFI Fest Film Review: Mommy (★★★★)

Anne Dorval is the strangest yet most magnanimous of movie moms.

mommy posterExquisitely directed by auteur extraordinaire Xavier Dolan, Mommy is a spellbinding trip that takes us through the peaks and valleys of single mother parenthood. No film from this year has touched me so profoundly, its zest for life and love unwaveringly committed. Visually and sonically charged sequences will you leave in a state of bliss while others will have you falling to your knees in despair. Mommy isn’t afraid of emotion in all its wondrous forms – its actors and director dive headfirst, not caring if the audience feels uncomfortable, appalled or restless. To say the characters in this film behave oddly would be a massive understatement, but they end up turning you into fans of their unconventional ways almost instantly. Even when society attempts to define them or cage their inner desires, they rebel with fits of wild energy, deep feelings of genuine love and outbursts of soaring ecstasy. The moments of heavy sadness, unexpected violence and seemingly twisted relationships add three-dimensional depth to a roster of characters that will never leave your subconscious. This isn’t a film that goes down easy for those with their guard up – you must relinquish control to Dolan and see where he takes you. Once you do, you’ll find yourself spiritually liberated and celebrating the joy that comes from emotionally unrestrained, aesthetically focused cinema.

Mommy is set in a near distant future Canada. New healthcare legislation has passed allowing financially burdened adults to give up their parental responsibilities if their child is mentally or physically unable to cope in society. The government would then institutionalize these handicapped children and place them in public hospitals until they reach adulthood and/or are fully rehabilitated. This decision looms over Diane “Die” Despres (Anne Dorval), a widow whose deeply troubled son, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) is returning into her custody after being discharged from a teen mental hospital for injuring a fellow patient. Diane has her own problems to deal with: she’s about to lose her position at work thanks to a change in management, her car is totaled following a devastating accident, and she has nobody but herself to rely on to set things right. Her neighbors see her as white trash, and her son a product of faulty genes and a broken home. Diane is pitied, judged, lusted after and obsessed over by those who watch her like hawks, waiting for her to fail so they can swoop in and reap the rewards. But the world is made up of mostly good people, and one such individual happens to live next door. It turns out something as simple as human compassion could turn a world of darkness into a paradise of merriment.

Anne Dorval is the strangest yet most magnanimous of movie moms.
Anne Dorval is the strangest yet most magnanimous of movie moms.

Kyla (Suzanne Clement) is this shining light who finds her way into the Despres household. After returning from a shopping spree that Diane clearly cannot afford, Steve presents his mother with a surplus of food, trinkets and a gold necklace with the words “MOMMY” engraved in the center. Diane then goes ballistic, unsure if her impetuous son stole half if not all the merchandise he’s presented her with. Steve, seeing his mother enraged, goes on the attack, letting loose a barrage of crass insults and threatening Diane with violence and worse. A brutal altercation ensues and Diane is forced to take drastic measures in order to protect her own life. Diane ends up injuring Steve in self-defense, prompting Kyla to step in and deal with the fallout. She applies bandages to Steve’s wounds and impresses Diane by not uttering a single word of judgment.

Kyla has her own demons she’s facing, ones of a more personal nature. Kyla used to be a high school teacher but her speech impediment made her an easy target for student bullying. The daily insults and constant mockery eventually drove Kyla to take early sabbatical. She’s now at the mercy of her husband’s computer engineering career, which in his case requires moving from city to city depending on the job. Kyla is drawn to Diane and her son because she feels like only a pair of misfits could accept someone as socially awkward as herself. Kyla doesn’t know how to properly fulfill the needs of a wife or mother, but somehow finds meaning in her life when she’s homeschooling Steve and providing healthy laughter to Diane. The bond between these three is so strong that to separate them would be like cutting the wrong wire when diffusing a bomb. Clement delivers the best supporting turn of the year, offering audiences an authentic portrayal of the suffering one undergoes when dealing with a disability beyond your control. She turns her meekness into charm, her impediment into a unique trait to be proud of instead of embarrassed by, and the honest-to-god proof that surrounding yourself with positivity is the closest thing to a cure for a crippling affliction. I adored Clement’s work in Dolan’s Laurence Anyways, but here she shows even more range than I thought possible. In a just world, she would be holding the “Best Supporting Actress” Oscar proudly during the 2015 ceremony.

What needs to happen to make this kid become the next Leonardo DiCaprio? Antoine-Olivier Pilon has the chops.
What needs to happen to make this kid become the next Leonardo DiCaprio? Antoine-Olivier Pilon has the chops.

Diane and Steve are the mother-son film duo of the century thanks to impeccable performances by Dorval and Pilon. Dorval wisely resists the urge to overplay the “trailer trash” stereotype, and instead presents to us a woman who doesn’t sit on her wealth when she doesn’t have to. Despite her lack of education, she is both a hard worker and a mother who understands sacrifice is a parent’s duty. Steve’s volatile temper and ADHD threaten to destroy Diane’s sanity, but she is strong enough to fight through any obstacles for the betterment of her son. Even though her choices may baffle Steve and throw him into an emotional tailspin, Diane’s solidarity of character never wavers. We trust in her because we trust in the power of a mother’s love. Pilon, meanwhile, is a fiery revelation. His expressivity knows no bounds, nor does he falter when it comes to handling Dolan’s dramatic material, which requires deep levels of focus to pull off and zero room for failure. He has the rambunctiousness and energy of a young Macauley Culkin, and the acting gravitas of Leonardo DiCaprio circa 1993. Truthfully, he’s every bit as worthy of a “Best Actor” Oscar nomination as any of the high-profile thespians in contention this year.

Without spoiling too much, I must commend Dolan for his creative usage of aspect ratio. He uses the tools of cinema to inform his narrative as much as control it, oftentimes having below-the-line craft work sprint hand-in-hand with his lively characters. Dolan prides himself on audience involvement, and it shows in nearly every frame of Mommy. Popular songs are played in full to perfectly summarize emotions that cannot nor should not be expressed via exposition. Andre Turpin’s intimate, almost claustrophobic cinematography is our direct bridge to getting inside these character’s mental spaces; he allows us to relate to them in ways we’ve never been able to in human dramas of similar ilk. Mommy is a playground of fulfillment and hope above anything else, standing tall as Dolan’s magnum opus and the greatest piece of cinema you’ll see all year. It was an absolute privilege to experience Mommy, and I can only hope others find it as enthralling and innovative as I did.

Bar none, *the* supporting performance of the year, male or female. I'm still in awe. Come give this woman an Oscar, please!
Bar none, *the* supporting performance of the year, male or female. I’m still in awe. Come give this woman an Oscar, please!

Mommy will get its statewide release on January 23rd, 2015. The film will be distributed in the U.S. by Roadside Attractions and will likely have an Oscar-qualifying run in December (IMDB has the Los Angeles release date marked December 12th, 2014). It should also be noted this film is Canada’s submission for Oscar 2015’s “Best Foreign Language Film” category. Be sure to check out the trailer below!

What do you think?

72 points
AC Fan

Written by Joseph Braverman

My name is Joseph Braverman. I am 31 years old and a graduate from the University of California, Santa Cruz with a Bachelor of Arts in Film and Digital Media. I love watching and analyzing films and television shows. I live in Los Angeles, CA, enmeshing myself in the movie industry scene in any way possible. Don't forget to follow me on Twitter @JBAwardsCircuit.

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