Film review: Xavier Dolan’s Mommy

Xavier Dolan Mommy

Quebec cinema wunderkind Xavier Dolan’s fifth feature Mommy is his best by far.

In hindsight, Mommy is also Dolan’s first masterpiece. This isn’t a knock to his debut, J’ai tué ma mère, or the lush Laurence Anyways, or even the Hitchcockian Tom à la ferme, but none of his previous films are nearly as moving, captivating or artistically assured as Mommy is. Knowing what he can do now with Mommy, a passionate, beautiful and unique film about a Québécois family, with a script that is biting and emotional, it makes his previous efforts pale in comparison.

Set in 2015, when a new law is passed allowing Canadians with a problem child to give him or her up to a federal institution, Mommy follows Diane “Die” Després (the perfect Anne Dorval, in her fourth Dolan film) and her son Steve, whom Die picks up from what appears to be a boarding school that’s at wit’s end with what to do with the troublemaker (Antoine-Olivier Pilon). Steve set one of his classmates on fire and is being expelled, leaving widowed and severely underemployed Die no choice but to try to homeschool him. The pessimistic woman at the school reminds Die that “It’s not because we love someone that we can save them.” Immediately, we get a glimpse into the mother-son relationship of Die and Steve. Dolan is in his element: they have fun together and love each other, clearly, but Steve is sometimes violent and dangerous, and Die can’t help but blame herself. Their relationship is toxic but codependent. Die can never be sure what will set Steve off. After a misunderstanding leads to an argument, Steve starts destroying things around the house and Die scrambles to find a safe space to hide from her boy until he calms down. Suddenly, that new law sounds like it could literally be a lifesaver. Die and Steve get some relief when the shy and stuttering neighbour from across the street, Kyla (Suzanne Clément, in a beautiful and heartbreaking turn), begins to tutor Steve.

Mommy hits you when you least expect it with a ferocity that left me thinking about it for days after I watched it. Even almost two weeks later, I get chills thinking of certain scenes and sequences, and Dolan’s use of music is especially effective in the film. It felt odd at first, hearing Dido’s “White Flags” or Oasis’s “Wonderwall” used in the soundtrack un-ironically, but when Kyla, Steve and Die belt out Celine Dion’s “On ne change pas” after a hilariously awkward dinner scene, I was floored at how such a soapy moment could be so moving. It just works. Everything in Mommy meshes so well for the world and characters of Mommy.

The 1:1 aspect ratio in which it is shot leaves no room for distraction either. You’d think that you’d be missing out on something with the square frame, but it’s more than enough to be completely immersed in the characters’ worlds, their living rooms, kitchens, lives. Dolan also isn’t afraid of extreme closeups, leaving no room for the actors to not emote and commit fully.

To have five directorial efforts to your name at age 25 is a feat in itself, but for those five to be critically acclaimed, well… It should surprise nobody that Dolan’s reported next film is going to be his first English-language feature and will star two-time Oscar nominee Jessica ChastainMommy, like three of four Dolan films before it, screened at the Cannes film festival (Tom à la ferme premièred at Venice, but did not make it to the South of France) and was awarded the Jury Prize. It screened at TIFF and had a big red-carpet première in Montreal earlier this month. The hype is real and it’s worth it.

Mommy opens in Montreal on Sept. 19.

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

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