French-Canadian director Xavier Dolan, who has already successfully touched on the topics of teenage homosexuality and gender transition before he had even turned 25, continues his streak of emotionally bold, open-wounded efforts with Mommy. His subject matter this time out veers away from the gender-oriented tempos of those from before, though, instead turning his eye to the struggles of a low-income single mother coping with the brash, unpredictable attitude of her teenage son and his time following a stint at an institution. Dolan takes familiar material and gives it an uncompromising edge, focused on the dread and confusion generated by the hostile interaction between the two as the mother struggles to gain a grip on the rapidly imploding situation. While the director teeters between realism and indulgent emotionality on both sides of the spectrum, the film's noble intentions, stunningly raw performances, and unique cinematographic perspective command a strong, intimate presence.
Three years have passed since Diane "Die" Despres (Anne Dorval) lost her husband, roughly the same amount of time since Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), her son, was placed in a facility -- one of many -- for his extreme, ADHD-diagnosed behavior. Among the limited (and more permanent) options remaining after an accident of her son's doing left another boy burned and disfigured, Die brings him back home to her modest living conditions, unsure of how she'll juggle her already-shaky employment situation and her son's volatile tendencies. She quickly learns that the situation isn't going to pan out without some help. Luckily, she discovers that her neighbor from across the street, Kyla (an enigmatic and entrancing Suzanne Clement), is a teacher on sabbatical, whose husband forces them to travel around due to his job. Despite her own emotional issues that have left her with a stutter, she elects to help Die and Steve out as they learn to cope with the situation, building a bond with the pair of them that suggests a mutual benefit, lending hope to the idea that they might be able to straighten Steve out.
Director Dolan strikes a compelling balance with Steve's attitude ... or, rather, an imbalance, between his alarming destructive tendencies and the slight, interpretive indications that he's possibly a decent kid underneath. Coupled with the unique choice to frame much of the film at a 1.1:1 ratio through the perceptive and poetic lens of Incendies cinematographer Andre Turpin, Dolan emphasizes the claustrophobic danger and desperation of Die's situation, where her love for her son suffers both verbal and physical abuse. It's a powerful cinematic sensation to see the ways in which she attempts to both assert authority and placate Steve during his tantrums, though his insistence on pushing buttons and intentionally dismantling Die's life teeters to a point of exaggeration. That's the way many real-life horror stories about kids with Steve's condition come across, though, and Dolan does an immensely credible job at using that volatility to deliver a poignant message about the situation's complexities.
At the center of Mommy's dramatic integrity stands Anne Dorval as Die, a fully realized and nuanced embodiment of a broke, distressed mother who's running low on options in how to get her son under control. Both hardness and compassion are conveyed through challenging sequences where she copes with the extremities of Steve's problems, relaxing when she has moments alone with Kyla and revealing the humorous personality that's suffocating under the surface of her battle with Steve. Antoine-Olivier Pilon had a daunting task ahead of him in projecting this character that's so far out of Die's -- or anybody's -- control yet also showing flashes of hope in his tenderness and construed childhood mannerisms, but he delivers that without missing a beat, creating an organic force of nature whom draws both palpable disdain and tentative sympathy for his powerlessness to change. The rawness and smartly-telegraphed vulgarity of Dolan's dialogue further elevates the pair's chemistry, providing them with consistent disheartening shifts in their relationship: challenge after challenge for Die's constitution.
While Mommy stays convincing through the nuances of its characters, especially in the delicate interpretation required to decipher Kyla's issues and her attachment to the troubled Despres clan, the story's tempo suffers from sudden shifts in Steve's development, both positive and negative. Most of the moments that work towards calming him down and focusing his energy happen off-screen, as if director Dolan doesn't want the audience to get their hopes up too high about his improvement. Instead, those unseen gaps tend to help Steve over humps that aren't completely believable without seeing how they play out, from progressing in his studies with Kyla to his ability -- and his desire -- to keep his cool while preparing meals. They tell instead of show, which is difficult to resolve due to the director's devoted eye for the things that make Steve such an erratic and self-destructive entity, resulting in some lenient storytelling in service of Dolan's desired emotional peaks and valleys.
Those grievances gradually weaken, though, once the destination that Mommy's headed comes into focus, veering away from the tidy, willfully encouraging resolutions found in the likes of, say, Good Will Hunting and Short Term 12. Together with inventive plays on aspect ratios to convey the fluctuating progress of the situation, Xavier Dolan assures the audience that he never intended for Die's journey to be a straightforward tale of a family's fall and rise, adapting a complex, real gradient of emotion and conflict to elements of Steve's behavior that they cannot run away from. The end result isn't easy to watch, open-ended and complex until the very end; however, it's also immensely rewarding when looking at its depiction of troubled kids and the parents whom have to learn how to adjust to their problems while retaining some semblance of optimism about their child's future. Dolan may take a few liberties with realism and emotional exploitation for the sake of getting those points across, but the end result certainly makes the heartrending journey one worth the risk.
Video and Audio:
Roughly 75-80% of Mommy exists in the claustrophobic 1.1:1 aspect ratio, leaving broad swaths of black bars on either side of the screen for the majority of Lionsgate's 16x9 widescreen-enhanced transfer, but that doesn't detract from the beauty captured by Xavier Dolan and his cinematographer within that space. Stunning, earnest glimpses into the Despres household reveal a capably-rendered warm palette and delicate details in clothing and close-ups where needed, deftly delivering firm details and solid shades in skin tones and stylish costume choices (chevron shirt, significant necklaces, etc.). There's also a lot of different ranges of motion throughout the film, from slight slow-motion to the fury of arguments between Die and Steve, all of which are fluid, adaptive, and leave details completely accounted for. There are numerous softer and lighter-contrast moments where high-definition clarity would've been welcome, especially when the aspect ratio opens up, but Lionsgate's DVD does a reputable job at taking the sting out that absence.
The French Dolby Digital 5.1 track is up to the challenge of reinforcing the confined aesthetic Xavier Dolan's after with Mommy, keeping most of the activity confined to the front channels. Sounds of liquor pouring into shot glasses, door bolts clicking, and pictures frames shattering telegraph restrained but aware moments of clarity, while the sounds of feet tumbling throughout the house render fine spatial bass response. Dialogue is completely natural and receptive to both high and low ends, while the late-'90s musical selections -- Counting Crows, Dido, etc. -- healthily travel to all the channels for an encompassing experience. I did pick up on a stray sound distortion near the middle on the film in the back right channel, but that's about it. The English subtitles are solid white and well-translated.
Mommy is an incredibly strong and frequently powerful look at the struggle in coping with an uncontrollable and violent teenager, immaculately performed and deeply felt through a cluster of fine performances. Even though its self-indulgent developments keep it from being a truly excellent film, Xavier Dolan achieves enough of an organic experience otherwise to make this somber, reservedly hopeful character drama well worth embracing. Merely Recommended, since the subject matter's a little tough in terms of rewatch value and since we're not working with any supplements.