Quebecois filmmaker Xavier Dolan is only 25 years old and now here is his fifth feature, Mommy, arriving Cannes-anointed as one to watch. He’s a writer-director of obvious raw talents, experimenting with style and tone to see what works. It’s not refined, and certainly spills out in unpredictable ways that are equally energizing and exhausting. But there’s a thrill of seeing developing promise and consistency of vision. His age and his mixture of seriousness and irreverence toward his craft tend to sort reactions into extremes, those proclaiming him an out-of-the-box wunderkind hope-for-cinema, and those gnashing their teeth over the flash-in-the-pan enfant terrible. He’s neither yet in my book, but he’s certainly worth keeping an eye on.
After five films in as many years, Dolan’s still a “watch this space” sort of young filmmaker. His films spring from the same source, a clear and direct auteurist personality, loaded with dreamy slow-mo, loud pop songs on the soundtrack, and vivid colors. I was quite taken with his 2011 feature Heartbeats, a small bauble of a relationship picture borrowing Wong Kar Wai and French New Wave cool. Other works – a sprawling three-hour transition tale, Laurence Anyways, and a tiny kitchen-sink melodrama, I Killed My Mother – are uneven efforts, but interesting for the developments they represent. His films have a youthful desire to play with his moviemaking toolbox, to futz with his skills, pressing stories and styles ever so slightly farther than he’s capable of comfortably taking them. So it is with Mommy, a film that has moments of brilliance, but is not a brilliant whole. It is, however, a cohesive vision.
It is a mother-and-son story, about broken, codependent people living difficult lives and the small oasis of connection that keeps them afloat. An unemployed single mother (Anne Dorval) welcomes her emotionally disturbed fifteen-year-old (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) home after a lengthy stay in a juvenile detention facility. They have a close relationship, but one fraught with tension. They have tempers. They smoke, swear, drink, shout, and are generally prone to overreaction. There are moments of quiet tenderness and familial goofiness, but always cut with tension. She’s doing the best she can to keep their family together, but with her son’s wild mood swings, antisocial behavior, and scary intensity, that’s difficult. At one point, the boy slams his mother against the wall, choking her. Later, he sings her a song, tenderly kisses her hand. This isn’t healthy or sustainable.
Dolan shot Mommy in a boxy 1:1 aspect ratio, a perfect square that’s cramped, far more pinched than the Academy Ratio of yore. The look pins its characters into colorful emotional constraints, boxed in by their close and troubled relationships. Dorval and Pilon have intense interactions held in tight close ups, the frame frustratingly limited. It’s claustrophobic. In her face we see frustrations in dealing with such a child, but there’s love in her eyes as she’s determined to make this new arrangement work. He’s rowdy, unpredictable, an annoying and trying presence, cajoling, uncouth, and hotheaded. It must be a strong mother’s love for her to put up with him. Help arrives when a shy, kind, stuttering neighbor (Suzanne Clément) offers to look after the boy while the mother looks for work. As a three-sided friendship grows, hope lets a little air into the picture's stifling emotional terrains.
But uncertainty and strain is never far behind. The film sprawls out for over two hours, growing repetitive in spots, especially when plot turns are excruciatingly telegraphed. Past the novelty of the presentation and commitment of the performers, the film’s structure is amorphous, its themes confused. There reaches a point where the characters’ behaviors cease to be interesting and are instead simply wearing. By the end, I wasn’t entirely sure what we’re supposed to make of them. The meandering plot maintains its psychologically constricted focus, but drifts away into tropes. At a certain point I found myself worrying this would be the kind of movie that would stoop to include a suicide attempt to jolt flagging drama. I was right. Its point of view is imprecise right when it should be pinning down greater specificity.
But Dolan’s cinematographer (André Turpin) finds moments of great beauty in the small frame, and the soundtrack is alive with corny/catchy pop tunes used to great effect. In the film’s best scenes, Dolan is closely attuned to the performers’ expertly calibrated small shifts in characters’ relationships and attitudes, like an awkward dinner growing into a dance party, a karaoke night turning emotionally bruising, or a bike ride in which hope for a better status quo opens up their world to the point that they press against the very walls of the frame as if widening their horizons. The film is involving for its flashes of brilliance. Dolan knows how to stage a shot, when to cut, and when to cue a perfect needle drop to build aesthetically compelling movie moments. I’m skeptical about some of what he puts that skill to use for here, but can’t deny its moments of effectiveness. There’s a fuzzy widescreen daydream late in the picture that’s as moving as anything I’ve seen recently. And I certainly can’t wait to see what he does next.