“A mother doesn’t wake up one morning not loving her son”
If I can be justified in agreeing with all the praise after seeing just one of his films—his latest, Cannes Jury Prize-winning Mommy—twenty-five year old writer/director Xavier Dolan is every bit the wunderkind label that has been thrust upon him. Five films in six years all by the time he’s hit the quarter century mark with four debuting at Cannes and the other Venice? How can you not take notice of such accomplishments? Carrying the preconceptions a critical darling with this prolific a pedigree isn’t generally the fairest lens with which to finally sit down and construct my own opinion about him. But somehow his fierce and fast-paced look at a mother making tough choices to both survive her troubled son and cling to the hope he’ll one day conquer his demons exceeded expectations nonetheless.
Right from the opening scene where Sarah McLachlan‘s “Building a Mystery” plays within the car of an unknown driver as we see two vehicles crash in the distance through its windshield—one containing said mother Diane Després (Anne Dorval) heading to the detention center to scoop up her son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) who’s again embroiled in violence—we know we’re in for a treat. It’s a metaphor for the steady stream of chaos bringing Steve home is about to unleash as well as a singular introduction to a woman with the strength and confidence to go toe-to-toe with anyone standing in her family’s way. The soundtrack fluctuates from blaring when we’re inside the first car to muted in the open air to loud again as Die wrenches open the door for her own radio to escape.
It’s the first of many scenes with similar sound design as everything’s heard through whatever wall or window separates us from its physical source. When Oasis‘ “Wonderwall” plays over Steve on his longboard to commence a montage of genuine progress for the three main characters (rounded out by Suzanne Clément‘s neighbor Kyla)—one of the few instances of joy alongside the otherwise dark, complex drama—we hear the voices of characters talking drowned out to the point where subtitles aren’t necessary. Most movies would have simply excised all ambient sound so the song commandeered silent vignettes rather than retain the realism of hearing layers of noise outside your ear. It’s an enveloping effect that keeps us fully engaged so that the quiet moments of rage can unfold inside a vacuum of pure visceral and emotional energy.
Mommy‘s ultimately a collection of these brief moments escalating from aggressive to nuclear with only a few interludes of calm to keep things from spilling over into melodrama. In lesser hands this tale would have devolved into a Lifetime original movie of tearful exchanges and crippling fear rather than the intense display it becomes. Because just as volatile and unpredictable as Steve is being an ADHD-diagnosed teen a hair’s width from being committed to a federal institution with no questions asked due to a newly passed Montreal law, so too are Die and Kyla despite appearances. The former dials up her charisma to get what she covets—see lawyer/potential suitor Paul (Patrick Huard)—before her lioness turns on a dime when her meticulously measured lines are crossed. And the latter’s damaged shut-in pounces with teeth bared when pushed too far.
This was the most surprising and impactful revelation: that the boy in their care couldn’t dictate these women’s lives. He does to an extent considering Die puts her life on hold to care for him again (she loses her job, smashes the car, etc.) and Kyla pauses her sabbatical from teaching (after what we can assume through visual clues was a personal tragedy) to open her heart to a kid she can help make better. But neither is afraid to give back what he serves and more once his temper boils. They’ve each been through too much to let a wild child’s tantrums rule them and that sense of accountability is able to break through his blind anger. Just like the initial car crash, though, Die is soon blindsided by another unavoidable force to test her resolve.
Shot in a 1:1 aspect ratio for what Dolan describes as a “humble and private format”, its claustrophobic nature becomes a perfect complement to the psychology of what’s onscreen. It depicts the mental prison erected around this trio by internal and external forces. It frames the violence of a domestic battle beginning with Steve’s hands around Die’s neck and ending with a bookcase coming down upon his head, forcing us to focus our attention on the kinetic bedlam within. We’re squeezed into the box with them, feeling the weight of every decision and the pain of every hardship or hang-up that’s for all intents and purposes alienated them from ‘regular’ society. Only in true happiness and fantasy of a life that will never be does the screen open to show a short-lived freedom erased in the blink of an eye.
Artistic decisions like this prove Dolan is hardly a one-hit wonder, but instead a daring auteur unbeholden to convention. He obviously has a keen understanding of what it means to direct actors too because these performances aren’t the type to be easily forgotten. Dorval has been deservedly getting the majority of praise for her multi-layered matriarch teetering between manufactured personas and her behind closed doors self with Steve full of profanity and inappropriate behavior. Pilon is a force to reckon with as he runs for the fences whenever possible either verbally or physically until we honestly have no clue what he’ll do next. But it was Clément who grabbed my attention most—always unsure until shoved into action with precise and often dangerous movements. I’d love to see a companion piece showing Kyla’s history.
The music selection and the composition make it so many scenes will linger in your mind for hours and perhaps days later. “Wonderwall” is infectious in its optimism; Counting Crows‘ “Colorblind” melancholic as Pilon’s pent up energy is unleashed in a gorgeous dance of motion; and Ludovico Einaudi‘s “Experience” heartbreaking in the knowledge that what’s shown beneath is hardly the happy ending it seems to portray on the surface. Is it the reappropriation of music video sensibilities to burn moments into our brains by stimulating multiple senses at once? Yes. But it’s a conscious aesthetic choice that taps into his audiences’ souls rather than a manipulation. It’s Dolan packaging a powerful film in a form that the twenty-first century has already embraced for its intensive information consumption. Mommy takes a direct line straight to our emotional core.
 Anne Dorval and Antoine Olivier Pilon in Xavier Dolan’s MOMMY. Photo credit: Shayne Laverdière
 Anne Dorval in Xavier Dolan’s MOMMY. Photo credit: Shayne Laverdière
 Suzanne Clément in Xavier Dolan’s MOMMY. Photo credit: Shayne Laverdière