By Miranda Schiller @mirandadadada
Diane, a single mother picks up her teenage son Steve from a care facility for young people with behavioural difficulties. It is the last one in a series of similar institutions. This time he is expelled for starting a fire in the cafeteria, and everyone but his mother seems to have given up on him. His regular violent outbursts, provocative behaviour and hyperactivity have only increased since the death of his father three years earlier. But Diane does not want him in prison or in hospital, and takes him home to live with her, somewhere in suburban Québec. She is pretty impulsive and aggressive herself, and they spend much of their daily life shouting and swearing at each other.
Having dropped out of high school when she was a teenager, her home-schooling efforts are bound to fail, but the troubled little family receive unexpected help from their shy neighbour Kyla. Stuttering and unable to communicate with her daughter and husband due to a vague trauma, the retired teacher bonds with Steve and Diane. Teaching Steve and getting drunk with Dianne, she loosens up and the three find little moments of happiness and calm within their challenging lives.
Director Xavier Dolan shows the dynamics of this friendship with great tenderness, offering a welcome relief from the prevailing feeling of oppression and constriction. This is reinforced by the unusual aspect ratio of the image, a perfect square, only widening at the rare moments of hope and lightness. A stunning effect, and every time the image goes back to its 1:1 ratio, the intimacy with the actors is felt even stronger.
The performance of all three main actors is so intense and gripping that the length of the film (139 minutes) is barely noticeable, except during the recurring sequences of an imagined near future of happiness – it is not entirely clear who is imagining this, probably Diane, but these scenes distract from the story more than add to it. This and the reliance on a fictional Canadian law for the plot construction are the film’s only flaws, as they create a distance between the story and the viewer. It is exactly the lack of distance though which makes “Mommy” so superbly uncomfortable and disturbingly compelling.
“Mommy” does not shy away from showing even the darkest and most dangerous moments of Steve’s outbursts in great detail. His often ambiguous or misguided moments of affection and tenderness receive the same kind of attention: An affectionate kiss on his mother’s mouth, which lasts just a little too long and is a little too passionate to be acceptable. But even though some level of aggression or threat is present in most of his actions, he comes across as vulnerable rather than menacing, as well-meaning rather than malicious. Just as Diane comes across as tender in spite of her coarseness, and Kyla as strong in spite of her frailty.
The lack of distance is prevalent in all aspects of the film: The soundtrack consists entirely of songs on a mix CD Steve’s father had made with all the family’s favourite songs. And somehow, Xavier Dolan creates surprisingly chilling effects with such well-known and worn-out tunes as Oasis’ Wonderwall or Céline Dion’s On Ne Change Pas. And Steve inviting Kyla to an awkward impromptu kitchen dance session with the line “Come on and dance, she’s our National Treasure” referring to Céline Dion is just one of the many laughs that the film manages to deliver despite all its darkness and sadness.
Constantly hovering between humour and sadness, between tenderness and vulgarity, “Mommy” portrays its protagonists as loving and hopeful, but without the least bit of sentimentality.
Mommy is on general release from Friday 20th March. Don’t miss it!