Mark Reviews Movies

Mommy

MOMMY

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Xavier Dolan

Cast: Anne Dorval, Suzanne Clément, Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Patrick Huard

MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, sexual references and some violence)

Running Time: 2:19

Release Date: 12/12/14 (limited); 1/23/15 (wider); 1/30/15 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 29, 2015

No one would or should accuse Mommy of being subtle. It's a film that doesn't just draw attention to itself. It goes out of its way to ensure that we know beyond a reasonable doubt that it's drawing attention to itself.

The film is projected in an aspect ratio that gives the impression of watching a video shot upright on a cellphone displayed on a big screen (Officially, it's 1:1, which means a perfect square, but to these eyes, the image appears taller than it is wide, although such things can be deceptive). The soundtrack is a collection of well-known pop hits from the 1990s. The characters are warped versions of archetypes, and the performances are over-the-top in even the quietest moments. Even the setup, established in a text prologue, has the feeling of a melodramatic exploitation movie from a bygone era, in which the movie uses its scenario to warn of some threat to the public interest.

The threat is a Canadian law that allows parents or guardians to commit a child to a mental health facility if they believe the child poses some sort of risk to himself or herself, the parent or guardian, or the public at large. The language of the law is vague, and that's the danger. The law itself is also a fictional invention of writer/director Xavier Dolan, who sets the film in an alternate present where such a law already has been debated and passed, despite the doubts about it.

In essence, then, what we have is a film that is based in a lie, that manipulates its characters to become directly influenced by the lie, and that constantly reminds us that we're watching a fictionalized account of something that we already know is a lie. In other words, it's actually a bit of an understatement to say the film makes sure we know that it's drawing attention to itself.

That the result is a film that feels intimate and genuine about these characters is a testament to how well Dolan exploits the phony trappings. The odd aspect ratio makes us feel imprisoned in the lives of these characters. When a character breaks the fourth wall to push the frame beyond those confines, it's a neat trick but one that feels absolutely necessary. The tiny box in which these people have been living simply cannot contain the emotional release that's occurring. The soundtrack provides bursts of joyful or melancholic energy that heighten the montages of everyday life for these people. The characters and performances are exaggerated, but the actors hew honesty out of the caricatures.

After an idyllic scene of Diana "Die" Després (Anne Dorval) tending to the fruit trees in her backyard (an image that comes back to haunt her and us at the film's end), the film sets its tone and process with a shot of a car accident involving Die. The scene is shot from afar and happens without any warning.

The rest of the film plays out like watching a car crash up close and in slow motion, as the characters swerve away from danger only to find themselves confronting it again. The scene is also the first in a series of cosmic jokes that fate has in store for the characters—reminders that disaster is not only imminent but also unavoidable. Sometimes they're big, such as a car wreck, but often they're minor annoyances, such as a period of harmony interrupted by a broken shopping bag.

Die is on her way to pick up her teenage son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) from a boarding school where the faculty and students simply can no longer abide his violent outbursts. The last straw came when Steve viciously attacked another student. Die now has to find a way to financially support both herself and her son, as well as a way to deal with his unpredictable nature.

Despite Steve's problems, Die dotes on her boy, and even though there's little subtlety to the film, Dolan is delicate in the suggestion that Die sees Steve—and he sees himself (literally at one point, as his face is reflected in photograph of his father)—as a surrogate for a husband who died many years ago. It's just a part of their relationship that both realize but of which neither speaks. The closest the film comes to outright saying it is Die pointing out that Steve reminds her of his father and a kiss that lasts a moment or two too long for comfort.

Steve turns out to be more of a son to Kyla (Suzanne Clément), a neighbor who lives across the street from Die's house. Kyla's own son died a few years ago. She used to teach, but now she barely leaves the house. Her relationship with her remaining family is tenuous at best, and when she speaks, it's with a prominent stammer. Die and Kyla become fast friends, but there's initial tension between Steve and Kyla, who becomes the teenager's tutor. That dissipates after Kyla gives the kid the tough love that Die either cannot or will not give her son.

What follows is a series of emotional hills and valleys for the trio as they get to know each other and become nearly inseparable. The valleys—the scenes of domestic quarrels—become repetitive, even though the actors' dedication carries them.

The peaks in Mommy, though, are wondrous. There's the montage of the three characters going through a new, happy routine—the first time the image opens to fill the entire screen. Later, there's a flash-forward through time—the other sequence in which the image widens—that witnesses the way life could and, maybe, should play out for the characters. It's in these scenes that Dolan's commitment to artifice pays dividends. It's not only that the release from the prison of a tiny box is so joyous but also that returning to it feels so hopeless.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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