A single mother, her tumultuous relationship with her son, their dysfunctional family, the social issues that surround them – all these themes have been done to death in cinema. So what does director Xavier Dolan do in Mommy that sets itself apart from other films in the genre? Not much, actually. Dolan just does all those things really well and at the grand old age of 25. No wonder Dolan is one of the most talked about filmmakers of our generation.
Boasting a terrific cast with superlative supporting turns from Anne Dorval as Diane (the mommy in the title), Antoine-Oliver Pilon as her troublemaker son Steve and Suzanne Clement as their neighbour, Kyla, Mommy plunges you into the epicenter of an emotional breakdown. Troubled by the tragic departure of his father, Steve is afflicted with severe ADHD and is a borderline sociopath. He’s wildly unstable, prone to setting things on fire, being abusive and screaming his way into trouble, with zero regard for the law. His behaviour – he whirls a shopping cart around in the middle of a parking lot and then repeatedly kicks it while screaming ‘Who’s your daddy?’ -- is not subtle. He calls a black taxi driver a nigger and proceeds to beat him up when the driver retaliates.
Diane, nicknamed “Die”, is a chain smoking, washed out mess, who has been at the receiving end of tough bargains and has valiantly tried to keep things together all the same. Happiness is a rare commodity in their lives, yet Die is a superhuman whose superpower is holding on to hope in face of impossible circumstances. Her son terrifies many and people advise Die to make use of a law that allows parents to send their mentally unstable children to an institution without the child’s consent. Die, however resists. Her optimism seems to be rewarded when Die and Steve find a friend in Kyla, their next-door neighbour who is struggling with the trauma of having lost her young son. Up until this point, Mommy is presented in 1:1 aspect ratio, a narrow box of an image to portray the claustrophobic lives of its characters.
Then, in one scene, Steve, Die and Kyla are all out in the sunshine. The women are cycling. Steve is on his longboard, rushing ahead. Gleeful, Steve puts his hands at the edge of the frames and pulls -- the square stretches and expands slowly, to the tune of “Wonderwall” by Oasis, and opens up to the full screen format. It’s one hell of a cinematic moment. And then, when things go downhill as they inevitably must, you suddenly realise that you’re watching a film presented in 1:1 aspect ratio again. There are plenty of moments like this in Mommy. Dolan takes hackneyed material and embellishes it with his unique vision to present something fresh. Another sequence where the frame opens up is when Die slips into a daydream, imagining a future in which she, Kyla and Steve live a ‘normal’ life so messed up, is quite capable of reducing you to your tear ducts. It takes a lot of thought and reflection to untangle all the complex relationships revealed throughout Mommy.
The final image of the film is ambiguous and is left to you figure out whether it is full of promise or doom. There is a ton of tragedy in the movie, but the sense of longing for hope is powerful. One of the most interesting aspects of Mommy is the intimate exploration of familial sacrifice and love observed through the three terrifically gifted performers. Is it morally right, even though financially recommended, to send your loved one to a loony bin? Die is a loving mother, but she’s also a terrible by all normal standards. Their lives could improve if she sends Steve to an asylum, but does that justify labelling Steve “crazy”? Mommy hits you hard, right in the feels, and yet it plays out like a black comedy through most of its runtime. When Steve hurls expletives at his mother and fondles her, you can’t help but laugh, albeit in nervousness. A hat doff to Dolan for managing to extract this emotion out of you. At 25, he’s made five films and shared a trophy at Cannes with Godard. His future is interesting.
(First published in Firstpost)