When I first watched Xavier Dolan’s Mommy shortly before it played at the Toronto International Film Festival, it felt a bit over thought, like the youthful Quebecois auteur was striving for something he just couldn’t grasp. Upon a second viewing, however, a lot of those concerns dissipated, and I was shocked to find that his story of motherly devotion comes rightfully packed full of emotion, socio-political subtext, and thoughtful exchanges. It shows not only another level to Dolan’s pushing of stylistic boundaries to exciting new heights, but also a maturation of Dolan as a storyteller. I’m more partial to this year’s slept on thriller Tom at the Farm, but Mommy still remains one of his best films and the rightful selection for Canada to put up for a potential Academy Award nomination.
In a fictional 2015 where it has become legal for parents facing hardship to place difficult, unruly, or developmentally challenged kids into public institutions, Die (Anne Dorval), a trashy, unfit mother still trying to live out her adolescence, is forced into taking back her teenage son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) after an incident in a group home that left someone severely injured and nearly sent him to adult prison. The two of them find help and solace in Kyla (Suzanne Clément), a shy, stuttering neighbour who wants to be Steve’s tutor.
Primarily utilizing a somewhat obscure aspect ratio designed to make every shot look like a photograph, Dolan certainly knows how to compose a striking image in limited space. Visually the film becomes more grounded in such closed quarters, and Dolan’s use of 90s pop and alt-rock anthems suggest that we’re viewing things from Die’s point of view, who would have had what she probably thinks would have been the best time of her life in the last decade of the 20th century. Everything looks great enough to function as memories that have been idealized in both positive and negative ways. The shooting technique becomes wholly representative of the emotions of the main character. She’s trapped, kind of gimmicky, and she still believes deeply that things will turn out okay.
Dorvall is just white trashy enough to not be a caricature, often given awesome tactile ideas to work with, like having too much shit on her keychain or her particularly angry, yet disaffected cadence that sounds like it was written expressly for her. Pilon acts just odious enough to maintain some sympathy, and he’s great at showing how much he loves his mother despite making her life a living hell. Clément, however, almost steals the entire film away as the caring outsider, whose touchingly acts like she wants the life that Die and Steve share.
And while the mother and son relationship sometimes tends towards the melodramatic, Dolan never acts judgmentally towards people that might be written off as basic white trash by the more fortunate. He’s unflinching in depicting their faults, but also asking the audience to accept these people as what they are. Dolan casts these characters sometimes opposite of outsiders that might not understand a lower middle class lifestyle, and deep down I think that Dolan knows some people will chuckle at some of the characters’ more outlandish personality traits, but he’s always quick to never cast a disparaging eye or a rude comment onto them. It’s the same kind of grace that made Laurence Anyways and Tom at the Farm special. It’s an elegant look at the marginalized and misunderstood, and it’s no surprise that the film subtextually takes swipes at the Harper government’s “out of sight, out of mind” attitude towards mental health issues. It’s emotional, but also vital and smart.
For as much as people like to think that Dolan makes high minded art films, I don’t really think he does. He makes beautiful and artful films about everyday people who get caught up in easily misunderstood and misconstrued circumstances. For as many people get caught up in his well honed and crafted aesthetics, more should be getting caught up in how Dolan functions as an exceptional storyteller. Hopefully the buzz around Mommy will be the start of more people taking notice of Dolan as more than a formalist, but I like to think I had him pegged as a great writer well before this.