Monday, March 09, 2015

movie review: Mommy

(Canada, 2014)
director: Xavier Dolan

It's true that Mommy received the Jury Prize at the Cannes film festival last year, but as far as I'm concerned, its true triumph is to have finally convinced me of Celine Dion's musical genius. I'm (mostly) joking, but there is a scene in the movie that pairs Dion's insanely catchy "On Ne Change Pas" ("We Don't Change") with the events on screen in a way that is equal parts amusing, disturbing, and eventually quite beautiful.

Watching Mommy is like being strapped in for the ride on a towering roller coaster. It is equal parts exhilarating and terrifying. At the centre of the movie is the relationship between Diane (Anne Dorval) and Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), her charming but very troubled teenaged son. When we first meet Diane, Steve is being released into her care from a juvenile institution--he's been kicked out for yet another in a series of violent incidents. It's easy to see that Diane loves her son and that he loves her, but it's also clear that they are very capable of bringing out the worst in each other.

Steve's father passed away a few years ago, leaving Diane as the sole breadwinner. But because she never finished high school ("Don't be like me!" she pleads with her son), it's hard for her to find work. Compounding the problem is that in addition to making a living, she has to find a way to homeschool Steve so he can get a high school education and stay out of trouble. Watching Steve and Diane with shy but intense interest is Kyla (Suzanne Clément), the schoolteacher on sabbatical who lives across the street. She seems to need a friend as much as Diane and Steve do, and the unfolding of this triangular relationship is fascinating and unpredictable.

Mommy has so many things going for it: the soundtrack, the sharp and clever writing, the effortless acting of the three leads. Pilon is astoundingly good for such a young actor; Dorval completely inhabits her role with ferocity and beauty; and Clément's calm watchfulness, which could easily have been obscured, manages to assert itself despite the crazy energy of Diane and Steve. The cinematography is beautiful and accomplished: nearly all of it is shot in a very unusual aspect ratio--1:1, or square. Dolan uses this odd framing to great effect, closing us in tightly with the characters on screen in a way that creates both intimacy and intensity.

I have only two minor criticisms of the film. The first is about the rather inexplicable text at the beginning of the film stating that the story is set in the near-future--it's distracting, and the movie would have worked just as well without it. The second is that at 2 hours and 19 minutes, it is a bit too long. However, the final 15 or 20 minutes are wrenching, and easily as riveting as anything at the beginning. Mommy, like Steve, is a howling, whirling dervish of energy that mercilessly whips the audience along, forcing us to bear witness to the destruction he leaves in the wake of his furious love.

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