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New Release Review - Mommy

A widowed mother and her troubled son befriend a new neighbour.


Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Xavier Dolan

Starring: Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Suzanne Clément



"Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." Ian Maclaren's oft quoted creed is one few of us live by. It's difficult not to be instantly judgmental, and in this current age of anonymous faux outrage, where an innocent tweet can have its author pilloried by tone deaf readers, first impressions are more damning than ever. I have to confess to passing judgment quickly on the two main protagonists of Xavier Dolan's latest, most mainstream offering. Ten minutes into the film I despised the mother and son played by Dolan regular Anne Dorval and relative newcomer Antoine Olivier Pilon. An hour later I had fallen heads over heels for the pair, along with the friend they acquire in Suzanne Clément's neighbour.
Dolan opens his movie with a series of title cards that explain the story we're about to witness is in fact a work of sci-fi, set in a near future Canada in which a law has been passed allowing parents to unburden themselves of troublesome children by handing them over to the care of the State. One such parent is fortysomething widow Diane (Dorval), who decides to take her institutionalised ADHD suffering son Steve (Pilon) back to the family home with the intention of homeschooling him. We quickly learn how out of her depth she is; Steve is wildly out of control, and frankly obnoxious at first glance. In the space of his journey home he's racially abused an African cab driver and insulted sundry passersby thanks to his lack of boundaries and an inability to filter his thoughts.
Rather than being shocked and embarrassed by her son's public behaviour, Diane seems to take delight in Steve's wild nature, suggesting he may have inherited some of his traits from her deceased lover. When the mother and son pair are introduced to new neighbour Kyla (Clément), a former teacher forced to leave her job due to a speech impairment, she becomes a settling influence on Diane and steve, who in turn open the shy Kyla to their initially offensive but gradually seductive world of exuberant narcissism.
If you're unaware of Dolan prior to watching Mommy, you'll be surprised to learn this fantastic film comes from a 25-year-old filmmaker. You'll be even more shocked to learn it's his sixth feature film. Since the age of 20, the prodigious prodigy has been writing, directing, producing, editing and occasionally starring in his films. Thanks mainly to his previously working within the genre reductively labelled Queer Cinema, Dolan has largely flown under cinemagoers' radars, so it's likely Mommy will be most viewers' introduction to his talent; almost like a second debut.
Most great filmmakers stamp their work with the watermark of their influences, but Dolan's films give the impression that his only inspiration is himself. Mommy is like a movie by no other; a piece of storytelling that can honestly boast of its uniqueness. Dolan employs a 1:1 aspect ratio that while technically a square, appears to our eyes to resemble a rectangular portrait frame, so accustomed have we become to the widescreen format. At first it seems gimmicky, but Dolan and cinematographer André Turpin use it to create some stunning images, often dividing up the screen in a series of vertical rectangles, and it lends an intimacy to closeups ill afforded by conventional aspect ratios. A few scenes into the movie and we're left wondering why it's taken until 2015 for a filmmaker to adopt this format, and here's to its future employment! There are two stunning sequences in which the black bars expand out to a more common widescreen shape in moments of joyous celebration that are cut short by bad news, the screen narrowing once again like the walls of a Death Star trash compactor to create a new feeling of claustrophobia, as though the characters' world is closing in around them. The effect is deeply melancholic, particularly second time around, like a still grieving mother drawing the curtains of her dead child's room.
The three central performances are captivating in very different ways. Dressed in a manner that would make Erin Brockovich look classy, Dorval's Diane is a wonderful creation, using aggression as a defence mechanism, unwilling to admit her own troubles, let alone those of her son. It's a role English speaking actresses can only dream of; one that would be the pivot of awards season if voters didn't hate subtitles. Clément is asked to deliver a much more subtle performance, often required to quietly judge her co-stars' behaviour, but wins us over immediately. The interactions between their characters are a sad reminder of how rarely we see two everyday women simply be friends on screen. It's Pilon who gets the most showy role and boy does he embrace it. Not since a youthful DiCaprio exploded onto the screen have we seen such a captivating turn from a teen actor. He possesses the ability to make us both love and hate his troubled teen, often within one scene.
If there is a precedent for Dolan's approach, it's the early work of the French New Wave. Like Godard and Truffaut, Dolan presents us with a real world scenario but never lets us forget that we're watching a movie. With an array of cinematic tricks on display, Dolan displays an unashamed love of cinema, finding the magical in moments of mundanity. Pilon's Steve pulling apart the borders of the screen will likely be the most memorable image of 2015, and I suspect Dolan will imprint many more in the years to come.




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