By John Corrado
★★★★ (out of 4)
“We still love each other, right?” Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) asks his mother Diane (Anne Dorval) during a pivotal dramatic moment in Mommy. “That’s what we’re best at, buddy,” she tells him, and these words become the heart of the story.
The fifth film from Quebec director Xavier Dolan, who at just 25 is carving out quite an impressive career for himself, Mommy is his best work yet. This is an accomplished and brilliantly acted drama about the love between a determined mother and her difficult son, that pulsates with raw emotion and deep feeling.
The film sets things up with a fictional prologue telling us that after the 2015 federal election, the Canadian government has passed a controversial law allowing parents to have their mentally ill children institutionalized against their will. And in this near future society, the choice to raise a challenging child on your own doesn’t seem to be a very popular one anymore.
When we first meet Diane, she is involved in a minor car accident on the way to pick up Steve from a youth detention centre, where he got in trouble for setting a fire in the cafeteria, figuratively going through hell for her son. Diagnosed with severe ADHD and attachment disorders, Steve is a difficult teenager. He can be upbeat and charming, kind and caring in well meaning if sometimes inappropriate ways. But he also has a dark side, exploding in violent outbursts that are getting harder for his widowed single mother to handle.
But she is determined to make a better life for Steve, homeschooling him until he can get back on his feet, even at the expense of finding a much needed job. They find an unexpected friend and tutor in their quiet and stuttering neighbour Kyla (Suzanne Clément), who seems lost in her own home and loosens up in their presence. The three forge a connection together, but like everything else with Steve, things can only be good for so long before everything hits the fan all over again.
Always believable, sometimes heartbreakingly so, Mommy is one of the best and most empathetic portrayals of mental illness that I’ve seen. We see the compassion that Steve exudes for those around him when he’s not in the middle of a rage, and also the guilt that he feels for not being able to control his violent outbursts. The choices that Diane makes as a mother are also painted in a deeply understanding light, showing the fierce love that she has for her son, even when she makes some tough decisions concerning his welfare.
And their love is a fierce one, a bond that goes deeper than any outsider could possibly understand, because their relationship is often a volatile one. The swear words and insults that they spew are a natural part of their communication, and sometimes these words are literally yelled in each other’s faces during increasingly tense verbal and physical interactions. But we never get the sense that they don’t love each other. They talk and behave like real people might in this situation, and the screenplay treats them respectfully, showing them as flawed and broken, but also doing their best despite their challenges.
The performances are outstanding. Antoine-Olivier Pilon is simply stunning, raw and angry, but also charismatic and funny. It’s a bravura performance that affectively plays to our emotions, winning us over with his playful side, before exploding and taking our breath away during a violent episode or quiet dramatic moment. Anne Dorval gives an equally committed and believable performance as his mother, and the passionate and explosive chemistry between them is compelling to watch. Suzanne Clément delivers a quietly touching supporting performance that nicely complements the two leads.
Behind them all is Xavier Dolan, a director with complete command over the screen. Mostly framed within a perfect square, Mommy uses its unique aspect ratio as a metaphor for the story in surprising and powerful ways. The square represents how the characters are quite literally boxed into their life together, struggling to break free and fill the blackness that surrounds them, and they are let free when the screen does break open during some breathtaking widescreen flourishes. The cinematography is mesmerizing, with the unique framing and confident use of slow motion signifying a director at the top of his game.
The film also uses music in some exciting ways, putting songs like Lana Del Rey’s “Born to Die” and Oasis’s “Wonderwall” to unforgettable use, the former playing right at the end and the latter during a beautifully edited montage. A kitchen dance scene set to Celine Dion’s “On ne change pas” is a brilliantly staged sequence, a rare cathartic moment for the characters where they are completely free to just let loose and be themselves. The lyrics of these songs give added poignancy to the story, and a dramatic trip to the karaoke bar provides another powerfully charged scene.
The final moments of Mommy are some of the most inspiring and exhilarating of any film this year, ending on a perfect note that represents the hope and resilience that these characters cling to, even when there is nothing else. This is a blindingly powerful and deeply emotional drama about the undying love between mother and son, that soars to operatic heights.