Last year, to try and add an air of credibility to my ‘favourite films of 2014’ list, I caught up with some real crackers during a particularly-hectic December: I saw Calvary, Mr. Turner, Only Lovers Left Alive, Frank and 20,000 Days On Earth that month, and they all made it into my personal top 20. This year I’ve generally been more on the ball, even if there are some films that I haven’t yet seen that I expect I will enjoy, like Sunset Song, Bride Of Spies and Song Of The Sea. However one movie I have been intending to watch for several months since missing it in cinemas is Xavier Dolan’s Mommy. It was released to near-universal critical acclaim and received one of those lengthy standing ovations at Cannes that you read about (seriously, those people clap like someone is going to take their hands away from them), while surprisingly it did very well in a poll of Guardian readers’ favourite films of the year recently; I say ‘surprising’ because the rest of the list was made up of more higher-profile releases.
Anyway, having now finally seen Mommy, I’m certain it’ll figure highly in my own list when I come to compile it during the next week or so. This is Canadian Dolan’s fifth film (insert obligatory mention of his relatively young age), and from what I can gather those who know about such things have declared it his best to date; it’s certainly an intense, well-acted piece and it left me wanting to see more of the director’s work. The drama revolves around Diane ‘Die’ Després (Anne Dorval), a widowed mother struggling to raise her troubled and occasionally violent son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), while also focusing on the strong bond the pair form with neighbour Kyla (Suzanne Clément). I’ve seen Die and Steve described as a ‘white trash’ family elsewhere, but I’m loathe to do so as I dislike using the term, plus it comes laden with the kind of baggage that doesn’t seem applicable to these well-drawn characters.
Dolan’s story is set in an alternative reality to our own, which is indistinguishable save for some alterations to the way in which troubled children are processed through a national system that appears to be failing; a brief glimpse of one facility reveals that the building has flooded, while the staff at another act in a quiet violent fashion in the car park (though this is not without provocation). At the beginning of the film it becomes apparent that Steve is not getting any better while residing in such an institution, and Die takes him back into her home and into her own care after he burns down the cafeteria and is thrown out. Die’s intention is to home-school the teenager and to be as supportive as possible, but her job is a tough one, and Steve’s behaviour is unpredictable: he can fly off the handle at any minute, and once he starts going down such a path it’s almost impossible to calm him down and return to a state of peace. Their relationship is an odd one, and Steve has clearly developed an Oedipus complex, but they also make for a hilarious double act at times, with Steve being particularly rude to some of the characters that cross their path and Die refusing to hold back when talking to figures of authority. But rather than any sweary social faux pas it’s Steve’s propensity towards violence that is more shocking, and at one point you fear for Die’s safety as he spirals out of control in their house; such scenes are quite harrowing to watch as well as being superbly acted. Kyla seems to have a calming effect on the boy, and hanging around with Steve and Die has its benefits for her, too: gradually her stutter reduces in their presence until it’s barely noticeable.
Dolan is a formalist, and there are some extremely enjoyable confluences of editing, music, cinematography and acting in this film. I have to credit the director for manufacturing some of my favourite scenes this year while using songs I dislike by the likes of Dido (White Flag) and Celine Dion (On Ne Change Pas), the latter of which is turned into a joyous kitchen singalong featuring the main three characters and serves as a kind of cementing of their mutual friendship. There is sheer, unbridled joy to be had watching Steve playing with a spinning shopping trolley while such FM-friendly pop booms away, especially when you realise that he’s clearly listening to something else – hip hop – via his own headphones. And when such a musical interlude leads to a flight of fancy – Die imagining her son as a ‘normal’ child, getting a college degree, having a girlfriend and then getting married – it is surprisingly moving.
As has been mentioned many times elsewhere the majority of the film is presented in a square 1:1 ratio, and this adds a feeling of claustrophobia to proceedings until Steve at one point actually forces back the sides of the frame with his hands, briefly turning Mommy into a more-typical widescreen affair. Such a device could easily feel like a gimmick, but it works well in the moment, briefly allowing for a change of tone as the film takes on a fresh, positive air. When the trick is repeated later it’s just as good: a simple and effective touch that leaves you with admiration for the director’s audacity. Dolan is a real talent, and he has coaxed some fine performances out of his actors here: all three leads produce excellent work, with much of the film’s emotive heft created by the entirely believable interactions between their characters. It’s a relentless, absorbing story, played out in a naturalistic fashion, and it’s as touching as it is uncomfortable. Dolan keeps the pace up and gradually tightens the screw, to the point where you are convinced this is all building up to something terrible and shocking: it kind of does, but the end also represents a neatly-cyclical return to the status quo. A very satisfying watch, and the original soundtrack, by Noia, is my favourite of the year by a country mile.
Directed by: Xavier Dolan.
Written by: Xavier Dolan.
Starring: Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Anne Dorval, Suzanne Clément.
Cinematography: André Turpin.
Editing: Xavier Dolan.
Music: Noia, Various.
Running Time: 132 minutes.