Starring Anne Dorval and Antoine-Olivier Pilon. Rated 14A. Now playing
In Mommy, 15-year-old Steve loves to ride his longboard down the middle of the street—arms lifted out like wings, rap thumping through his big white earphones. It’s his escape from a world that can’t quite contain him, and you get the sense that that image of exhilarating, giddy freedom also captures the feeling 25-year-old Quebec wunderkind Xavier Dolan had while making this unforgettable movie.
On one level, his Cannes Jury Prize–winning film is a straightforward, moving story about Diane, a single mother trying to raise a son who has ADHD and violent episodes. When he’s booted out of a detention centre, she brings him home to keep him out of jail or the psych ward. They form an offbeat love triangle/family with a neighbour across the street who heals her own traumas by helping them (and sharing Diane’s box-o’-wine). There’s a real, colourful grasp of locale here too, from the raw, expletive-packed patois of the Québécois to the lower-middle-class neighbourhood of bungalows and walk-ups where they all live.
But there is nothing kitchen-sink about this stunning breakout film. Dolan (who made last year’s art-house Tom at the Farm) edits Mommy into something more, finding dreaminess in the dappled autumn sunlight peeking through a curtain, soaring with Steve as he rides a shopping cart through parking lots, or unabashedly cranking a Celine Dion hit for a truly transcendent kitchen dance party. In his most audacious move, he shifts from wide-screen to the narrower, square 1:1 aspect ratio for most of the film. Rather than coming across as a gimmick, the technique somehow intensifies the action and intimacy of his story.
Mommy ends up feeling like it’s about really big subjects, like: is love enough to save someone? Can we ever really control another human being? And what the hell did any of us do to deserve this?
Dolan is helped, of course, by knockout performances. As played by Anne Dorval, Diane is a big character, but she’s the perfect combination of F-word-slinging tough chick and vulnerable single mom, decked out in her ridiculous platform heels, gold-embroidered jeans, and dime-store rings. No mother of the year, she laughs almost bitterly in the face of hardship: there’s a fantastic scene where she’s carrying her groceries from the bus stop and her bag breaks all over the street, and you can see her forcing herself to smile.
Antoine-Olivier Pilon is equally strong in the role of Steve, as joyful and lovable as a puppy dog one moment, believably spiralling out of control the next. He’s a difficult, combustible mix of childlike vulnerability and hormone-raging sexuality and aggression. Less flashy, but equally important, is Suzanne Clément’s near-mute neighbour, who manages to transmit deep levels of sympathy and frustration through her world-weary eyes.
You can’t help but admire these super-flawed central characters, but more than that, you will feel like you’ve seen something original, unfettered and full of life and risks. In fact, watching Mommy is a lot like whipping down a hill on that longboard. And it’s one mother of a ride.