Featuring: Anne Dorval, Suzanne Clément, Antoine Olivier Pilon
Screenwriter/Director: Xavier Dolan
Movie Website: mommythemovie.com/#/trailer
2014-15 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival season dates:
Somerville: 6-12 April, 7.30pm
Verdict: Startlingly original, discordant and confronting, this is a brilliantly performed and crafted pressure-cooker of a movie with real edge.
Many filmmakers strive for originality and edge, but few truly break new ground or push into confronting territory without resorting to try-hard or obvious shock tactics. Part of the problem is the striving. Being effortfully “different” for the sake of it is a wank, serving the artist’s ego rather than the work itself. The only originality that is worth its name is that which is inevitable, that emerges as a natural expression from the mysterious wanderings of the creative process, and is then honed and shaped through disciplined and judicious crafting to fit the work and present it in optimal form.
In these terms, Mommy is truly original, and genuinely edgy. The 1:1 aspect ratio in which most of the film is shot is unusual and appropriate, cramming the characters (and audience) into a confined space that amplifies the already noisy, almost unrelenting and often confronting intensity of the drama. In rare moments of relief, when the characters escape the pressure cooker confines of their troubled domestic setting, either physically (eg: when skateboarding) or through flights of imagination (eg: rose-coloured dreaming of a longed-for but impossible future), the aspect widens and the screen opens up. The relief is short-lived: reversion to the 1:1 aspect feels like a vice closing.
While the aspect strategy works, it is gimmicky and the least impressive aspect of the radicalism of design and execution that sets Mommy apart from the mob. Further, it is probably unnecessary. The piece is off the scale intense anyway. The combustible relationship between the lead characters, widowed mother Die (Anne Dorval) and manic ADHD teenage son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), is nerve-jangling, ever-teetering on the brink of catastrophe.
Steve is severely disturbed, highly excitable, prone to violent outbursts at minimal provocation, and given to socially inappropriate behaviour. The kid is all id. He has no self-censor, speaking out whatever is in his head. He is blind to taboos: early in the film he subjects a black cab driver to an ugly racist rant that includes the nigger bomb – for the viewer, this is both a baseball bat in the kisser, and an exhilarating sign of an uncompromising filmmaker shunning contemporary conditioning, set on telling the tale as it is, and freeing his characters to behave on their own terms.
Steve’s love for his mother is tempestuous, uncontrolled and tangled up with his sexuality, which is complicated by Die’s overtly and assertively sexy demeanour and appearance (she dresses like an overgrown groupie). Is there any complicity on her part? There are no easy answers, and no hints given. The characters are the characters, it seems, given free rein to be themselves. It is an illusion, of course, but they do seem liberated from screenwriter programming and manipulation.
A newly arrived odd-bod neighbour across the street, Kyla (Suzanne Clément), takes an interest in Die and Steve, and is soon spending most of her time with them. She has a severe stammer; Steve doesn’t know when to stop talking. Nice counterpoint, and an instance of the camouflaged artistry seamlessly at work beneath the surface.
In one of the most powerful scenes of the film, Kyla mirrors Steve’s aggression, which takes the form of sexually inappropriate intimidation and calculated cruelty in mimicking her speech impediment: physically pinning him beneath her on a bed, inches from his face, she delivers a venomously and fluently whispered volley of threats and cruelty of her own. It is a show of perverse empathy, destructive yet strangely bonding in effect. While Steve is reduced to tears, Kyla has taken him out of himself by shutting him up, forcing him to understand how it feels to have his own bad medicine shoved down his throat. In shutting him up, she has found her voice. Shrewd. Clever.
For a while, the unlikely threesome seems to have come upon a kind of peace and even happiness. The women are now besties, and both have room for Steve, despite his problems. Indeed, Kyla finds a vibrancy with her neighbours that is conspicuously absent in her family. It’s a doomed situation that cannot last, and is all the more poignant for that.
The performances are terrific. Anne Dorval is a charismatic screen presence, and utterly believable as the anomalous Die. The same applies to Suzanne Clément as Kyla. But Antoine-Olivier Pilon is a standout, brilliantly negotiating his way through his character’s complexity, managing somehow to ‘normalise’ Steve so that the viewer sees him through his mother’s eyes. For all his intolerable obnoxiousness, aggression, explosive outbursts and violence, he is endearing in his disarming honesty, and in his moments of sensitivity, loyalty and tenderness towards Die. For all their warring, this misfit mother and son clearly love each other, and this adds enormous emotional charge to the heartbreaking ending.
Actually, everything’s terrific and everything gels – the performances, the cinematography, the soundtrack, the seemingly chaotic but ultimately well-managed and cohesive narrative structure, the masterful characterisation…and it adds up to one hell of a pow.
This is surely a landmark movie for young French-Canadian writer/director Xavier Dolan. It’s not an easy watch, but a thoroughly compelling one. Films as different and powerful as this do not come along often. Don’t miss.
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