Hollywood is constantly utilizing Academy Award winners that we can easily recognize in order to sell seats in the cinema. However, the industry rarely searches for the next generation of brilliant filmmakers, who are sure to take the art of cinema to the next level. Xavier Dolan is a 25-year-old writer/director from Québec, Canada, who has already has a few full-length features to his name, although he hasn't necessarily been exposed to many American audiences. Watching his career from overseas makes you wonder what you were doing at that young of an age, while he's making a film that will ultimately be selected as Canada's official submission for the "Best Foreign Language" category for the Academy Awards. His newest feature film Mommy is nothing less than a triumph.
In a fictionalized near-futuristic version of Canada, the made-up S-14 law allows parents to commit problem children into state care without due process. Widowed single mother, Diane 'Die' Desires (Anne Dorval) picks up her son, Steve O'Connor Després (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) and brings him home. She's faced with raising her explosively violent son by herself, until they meet a new mysterious neighbor named Kyla (Suzanne Clément). Together, they form an unlikely family structure, as the two women struggle to keep Steve's temperament leveled.
As Diane is in the process of picking up her son, we're treated to a brilliant scene introducing us to this rather sassy woman. She certainly delivers more than a few laughs before Mommy transitions to a more serious tone. She's so incredibly confident in her ability to control her son and get him back on track. After all, she seems to be doing better herself. However, nothing can prepare her for the craziness that's to come along with Steve. While we're warned of her son's ways, we don't truly get to witness what he's capable of until he's released into her care. Like many other teenagers, he has a massive ego and a sense of invincibility. By insulting a cab driver and stealing from the local store, he feels as if he's doing the right thing. This just might be his largest issue, as he doesn't seem to entirely understand that his actions are unacceptable. One of the objects that Steve brings home for Diane is a gold necklace that says "Mommy" on it, which becomes a major motif for the picture. This is the physical representation of the love and the intensity within this mother-son relationship. However, the tension between the two continues to build over time, as Steve once again becomes out of control.
Steve lost his father, and he clearly saw him as a sort of role model. According to his mother, he has adapted some of the same behavioral traits, making this loss a difficult one for the young adult. Steve isn't even slightly calmed until he meets neighbor Kyla. However, she's no more than a guest in the Desires household until she's invited to join them for dinner, and the trio break into song and dance to a song from one of Steve's father's playlists. This scene comes across as a true moment of liberation for all three, as they temporarily escape from all of their problems, as if nothing else in the world exists. Kyla begins homeschooling Steve while Diane is at work, making her more than a neighbor, but a second mother figure. With the two of them together, Steve finally seems to be improving around the home. Mommy is largely a film about the relationship between freedom, guilt, and love. These themes might appear to be unrelated, but they are all ultimately mixed in order to create a complex display of impactful emotion.
However, all of the progress that seems to have been made begins to fade away, as he starts to return to his old ways, although we never see Steve outside of this familial structure. In fact, we're led to believe that Kyla has nearly abandoned her family in order to be there for Diane and Steve. Seeing Steve in other places of society is unnecessary, as this isn't only his story. This is the story of a struggling mother and her son, who are changed for the better when a silent neighbor finds her voice through them. Xavier Dolan's screenplay has a masterful grasp on the art of character, as we remain absolutely fascinated by the development that occurs within this family structure. Steve begins to feel utterly rejected by his mother, leading to a certain depression that causes him to act in unexpected ways. This leads us to a third act that starts with an impressive use of emotion in order to truly drive the picture. However, the final twenty minutes of the running time feel like they could have been condensed into ten. A scene between Diane and Kyla in the kitchen simply drags, and it ultimately ruins the overall fluidity of the third act. Even so, this is a small gripe, which only barely affects the film.
When it comes to the performances, writer/director Xavier Dolan has brought an impressive roster of actors on board. Anne Dorval is incredible as Diane. Not only does she entirely convince us of this intriguing role, but she displays a huge dynamic range that is sure to impress. Antoine-Olivier Pilon is a power to be reckoned with in the role of Steve. Utterly convincing and tremendously impactful, this is a well-crafted portrayal that will stick with you for quite some time after the credits are done rolling. Suzanne Clément rounds out this excellent trio as Kyla. Given that she doesn't speak much until the latter portion of the film, she must heavily rely on subtle delivery. However, Clément thrives in this performance, as she instantly attracts our attention in this intriguing portrayal. These performances act as the "center piece" of this strong film.
The 25-year-old filmmaker has done a lot more than craft a marvelous screenplay, but has also successfully delivered an exceptional visual style. The majority of the picture only covers a small amount of the screen, as it features an extremely unusual aspect ratio. This supports Diane and Steve's feeling of being trapped, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere for viewers. When Steve progressively begins to feel free, the picture opens up to a full-screen presentation, making it feel as if we can finally breathe. However, as Steve progressively feels trapped once again, the aspect ratio squeezes shut. This occurs a few different times, communicating the feelings of freedom and stress in life. When the film does open up, it looks absolutely beautiful. This is only elevated by an outstanding score and a group of incredibly fitting music choices, which provide the film with an entirely new dimension of emotion.
Writer/director Xavier Dolan has successfully crafted not only Canada's submission to the Academy Awards, but also one of the best films of the year. This is a tremendously complex, yet impressively controlled motion picture that one would expect to see from a filmmaker twice his age. Dolan works with a set of intricate themes that are handled with such brilliance. This is an intense watch that is sure to remain under your skin long after the credits are done rolling. Along with stunning performances from Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon, and Suzanne Clément, this is a journey that feels so intimate and powerful, that it simply cannot be brushed off. Mommy is a breathtakingly fresh piece of cinema with a major kick in the gut. Highly recommended!
Mommy played at AFI FEST 2014 presented by Audi on November 12 and November 13.