Out of all the films in 2014, Canadian prodigy Xavier Dolan‘s “Mommy” wasn’t part of the awards circuit, nor did it feature a cast of familiar names to give it the push that smaller films like these need during awards season when accolades and positive praise are paramount in entailing more audiences to see it, however, “Mommy,” with its lack of glitz and glam and seemingly unacknowledged by aforementioned standards, is one of the most unforgettable films to debut last year.
Dolan’s latest film, which shared the coveted Jury Prize award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival with legendary French director Jean-Luc Godard for his most recent experimental film “Goodbye to Language 3D,” focuses his story on the acrimonious relationship between a struggling mother (Anne Dorval) and her truculent 15-year-old son, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), fresh out of institutionalization due to his ADHD.
Steve is a pugnacious punk with bad grammar (“obviousingly”) and flagrant table manners. We witness Steve’s manic and violent outbursts, one of which sends his mother cached in a downstairs closet. He’s a bad egg, but not malicious as the spawn-of-Satan in Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” However, his mother Die is no saint either. She easily matches Steve’s profanity-laden voluble manner and mercurial temperament. One can deduce she’s carrying a lot of baggage around and has a lot of growing up to do herself, evident from the start by the gaudy outfits she flaunts and the swishes of booze that surreptitiously find their way into her coffee mugs. With a deceased husband and a troublesome kid, she’s finding it hard to maintain a safety net over their heads. Luckily, she finds assistance from her reticent neighbor Kyla (Suzanne Clément), a high school teacher on sabbatical, trying to cope with a speech impediment. What’s wonderful about what Clément brings to her scenes is that she’s so charming, she plays the part of a woman with a severe stutter quite well, without being too much of a cliché.
Pilon is an interesting spectacle at the center of this drama. Some of his manic outbursts are a tad bit histrionic and off-putting, yet somehow he manages to stroke our pathos in surprising moments. It’s in these tenderly crafted scenes that Dolan’s intentions become transparent. We see the duality, the heartache Die goes through in raising her son. As she states early on that sometimes love’s not enough. Dorval is the real star of the film. She gives one of the most emotionally layered performances of any film in 2014, easily besting any of the frontrunners at this year’s awards show. She can be brash and abrasive in one scene, matching Pilon’s austerity in tone, then vivaciously gregarious in a crass manner when she’s joking with Clément’s character. Yet somehow, you never doubt her maternal characteristic even when she struggles to show it.
Perhaps the most indelible part about the film though is not the acting but Dolan’s manipulation of the aspect ratio. What I had originally believed was a 4:3 aspect ratio was in fact a newly invented 1:1 aspect ratio. Some critics have complained this is too conspicuous of an artifice, but, to be fair, it’s not as gimmicky as when Sam Raimi employed this tactic in 2013s “Oz the Great and Powerful.” It’s a little less scheme-y here and done with more finesse than “Oz,” reminiscent of something Spike Lee did in his 1994 film “Crooklyn.” It’s used at appropriate moments throughout the film to externalize some of the emotions the characters go through, and, perhaps why it can feel a bit gimmicky, is because it’s also employed as an emotional cue for audiences. However, it serves well at setting the tone of confinement and mental incarceration. Whose confinement? I would argue both parties, both Die and her son. It’s also liberating when the screen expands to widescreen then disheartening when the vertical lines recede back once more.
While still relatively unfamiliar to most American audiences, “Mommy” cements the only 25-year-old director as a precocious visionary, well beyond his years. He’s had a handful of films premiere at top-name festivals like Cannes, Toronto and Venice and did not go home empty-handed. While we can retrospectively contemplate what we’ve accomplished so far in our lives, we can also admire Dolan’s latest work as a film worthy-enough to be on the résumé of a more venerable helmer.
While this film has been overlooked, don’t miss the opportunity to watch it (if it’s playing near you). It’s an entertaining, emotionally-packed tale about a mother’s inexorable love for her son that will uplift you as well as devastate you.