If memory serves, ‘Mommy’ was the blast-off film for Lost Weekend III and was to set the tone for the coming films. What a tone to set!
‘Mommy‘ is, on the surface, a disarmingly simple study of a family’s mortifying dysfunction, mostly through the 15-year-old son’s ADHD and explosively violent behavior, blanketed with the mother’s efforts to show her brand of love while holding out hope for something better. Anne Dorval is mostly very good in her portrayal of Diane Després, 40-something widow and mother to Steve, played with menacing-then-charming perfection by Antoine-Olivier Pilon. The movie begins with Steve’s return home after being deinstitutionalized – after he had set fire to the cafeteria at the facility he was receiving care in (and injuring another patient there), Steve’s mom was given the choice to have him shipped off to the highly restrictive juvenile detention center (“That’s the beginning of the end…”) or bring him home to live with her again. It is obvious from the start that Diane and Steve together are two highly flammable ingredients to an explosive cocktail, playing off each other’s emotions, each goading the other until the crescendo results in rather disturbing threats or actual acts of violence. It is after one such outburst that the third main character, the odd next-door neighbor Kyla, played by the brilliant Suzanne Clément, is introduced to the pair, and rounds out the main troika that gallops through the film.
The bizarre chemistry between Kyla and Steve, and between Kyla and Diane, is more than simply captivating – it tends to draw the audience in. Kyla, herself an audience member, has her own set of quirks – she has a prolonged stammer that entertains the asocial Steve, and is a recent arrival from Quebec where she used to teach high school but, for some unexplained (presumably dark) reason, quit her job and moved away with her husband and daughter. At one point, we spy a framed photograph of what must be her young son, but who does not live in Kyla’s house. As the film progresses, Kyla’s stammer becomes far less pronounced, but only when she is with Steve and Diane – and she finds herself with them often, apparently able to relax amidst (and in spite of) the tense atmosphere that the Després household often holds; in addition, since Steve’s home-schooling is beyond Diane’s ken, Kyla is asked to step in and provide her service as his teacher.
The film demands a great deal from the audience. The anger that lies beneath Steve’s every step is nearly tangible, to the point that we look for clues as to how he will react to any given stimulus at any particular point in the film. That’s as much a tip of the hat to Pilon’s acting as to the film’s direction by Xavier Dolan. Another demand is made right from the start, also by Dolan – the aspect of the film is reported to be at 1:1 – essentially a square or, if you will, a box in which each of the characters simmers or smiles. The affect can be quite claustrophobic, and when close-ups are shot during scenes of violence, downright unsettling. Finally, the audience is expected to sit tight and (presumably) try not to judge Diane, who obviously has been doing the best she can, given the hand that she’s been dealt – but almost all of her moves seem to be a display of rather terrible parenting. She uses the word love in describing her feelings for Steve, but compassion and nurturing appear to be non-existent. Trying to will a character to do the right thing when you can see things going downhill fast can take its toll on a movie-goer. Twice or three times in a film? No problem; it’s hard to have a plot without conflict. But twenty to thrity? Good lord.
It can be argued that almost all of Steve’s problems in the story are either directly or indirectly linked to his mother’s actions. We see it on the screen, when Steve is hectored into accompanying Diane with a male neighbor to a karaoke bar, where Steve is to be on his best behavior while Mommy and the neighbor wolf down drink after drink, discussing a pending lawsuit resulting from the cafeteria fire. We see him trying, but we know it will end horribly. The ensuing confrontations that night, as well as over the coming days, are heartbreaking. We get the feeling that there is an unnecessary membrane of hopelessness covering Diane and Steve – Kyla can clearly see it, and we believe that she recognizes it doesn’t have to be that way. The last straw comes in the final reel, when Steve is unwittingly brought to the juvenile detention facility by Diane in a display of surrender that she will not acknowledge. That goes over exactly as we, the audience, felt it would, but by this time we are far too fatigued to shout at the screen.
When the credits begin to roll, we are left with so many questions. For me, the main questions revolved around Kyla. What happened to her son? Why does she stammer? What happened in school to make her have to quit her job (or was she fired?) and leave Quebec? What makes her husband seemingly so aloof? What attracts her to the drama-filled Després family? Her character was enigmatic, the only character at first blush that seemed pure and unflawed, and yet we somehow know she isn’t.
Ultimately, this is a bleak and cheerless film. I find that it fits right into Dolan’s film-writing and directing oeuvre. While his wunderkind reputation was further solidified with the release of ‘Mommy,’ met with a nine-minute standing ovation at Cannes, I confess that I find him pretentious, and that he lives up to his image as an ‘untrustworthy’ story-teller. Needless to say, he has his fair share of admirers and critics alike.
I suspect I simply don’t understand Dolan’s message with this film, and because of that, I cannot fully appreciate what he’s presenting me with. I appreciated the filmmaking itself, and believe the acting was some of the best I’d seen all year, but because it is ultimately a painful and frustrating film to watch, it is one I would not quickly recommend.