“Loving people doesn’t save them.”
Mommy is the first film I have seen that manipulates the frame in service of the story, only ever so briefly. For almost its entirety, the picture is a 1:1 aspect ratio. Basically, it’s a square, a living and moving still-life portrait. And this isn’t some gaudy show of artistic sangfroid or grasping for a trendsetting status. Mommy hones in on its characters rather than their surroundings. The frame makes them important, places them first. While the sense of place lacks definition, we at least get to observe these enigmatic, engaging, fully realized people. There is a solemn, somewhat abrasive aftertaste to the story. Whether or not you find it palatable doesn’t matter in the least, because Mommy lingers.
For 2 hours and 20 minutes, we get the story of Diane ‘Die’ Després (Anne Dorval). She’s a bubblegum chomping middle-aged diva. Some might even say she dresses a bit like a hoochie. Diane’s a widow, unable to care for her son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), a flippant adolescent with ADHD and prone to terrifying spits of rage. One of those acts of violence, which nearly killed another young man, gets him booted from a detention center and into his mother’s arm, whichever isn’t holding her cigarette. We sense a different bond between the two of them. One that’s Oedipal without ever acting on it. Honestly, they’re more like flatmates, free and open with each other about every -and I stress EVERY- part of their lives. You’ve never seen a Mother and Son quite like them.
When their neighbor Kyla (Suzanne Clément) enters their lives, the story shifts, and the world expands. Kyla, a teacher by trade who helps Steve while Die works, is timorous and encased in a shell of insecurity. From there on out Mommy is a chamber piece, showcasing three actors giving three wildly different performances to nearly faultless results. Mostly though, these people just feel real, a line I found in my notes four times. Each stand on their own, but most importantly, they complement one another. Dorval makes the Real Housewife of Canada wannabe Diane sympathetic, moving, and ridden with guilt. And as Kyla, a character whose backstory is never fully fleshed out, Clément does what a supporting character is written to do; she supports. Both women are prone to a faux pas here and there, and still, they are whole. Acting this strong, bringing the script to life, is the work of gods.
If the women are gods, Pilon is a star. Radiant, stellar, luminous. His performance can only be rated in Kelvin. Steve is frank with no filter. As an enfant terrible, he says things to get a rise and a reaction out of people. But the other side is promising, angelic even, the Jekyll to his separate half’s Hyde. Pilon captures your heart before he sets it on fire, stepping back to bite his tongue, wrinkle his dimples, twinkle his eye. Sometimes people just have it. That certainly is the case here. It helps to have a director and writer who is a bit like Steve in Xavier Dolan. This is filmmaking of the highest level, done by a blossoming artist displaying more competency than not only his contemporary colleagues, but of any generation. While Mommy is a little too long, a little too self-effacing in spots (probably purposefully), I still couldn’t shake the experience. It adorns itself around your neck…you carry it with you.
How old was Orson Welles when he made Citizen Kane? Answer: 25. As was Dolan when making Mommy. And no, this isn’t a movie to stand the test of time, no “rosebud” to generate film theory. More than it is funny, or remorseful, or dazzling, Dolan’s feature is a declaration. He is here; his talent has arrived. While this is my first, and certainly not last experience with a Dolan film, it’s clear that he puts himself into the story (oftentimes literally in it, casting himself as the lead). That’s the classic film à clef, the French term for nonfiction dressed in the guise of make belief; an apparition of a once known reality. Mommy is important not only because of its style, but because of its substance, or at times, its willingness to lack thereof. To stay close or to recede back. What a daring act of originality this is, to be so utterly and totally real.
“You’re a Prince.”
Rating: 4.5 out of 5