I’d like to take a minute to introduce you to someone. Xavier Dolan started out as a child actor in his native Canada, and at 25 his career in front of the camera is still going. However, he has become known to the world as an astonishingly gifted filmmaker, to say nothing of a prolific one — he has already directed five feature films at his young age, and a sixth is in the works. The subject matter of his movies frequently draws from elements of his life: his homosexuality, his violent tendencies as a child, and his difficult relationship with his mother. (The title of his first film is I Killed My Mother.) Like many young filmmakers, he paints with primary colors. The emotions in his stories come through direct and unfiltered. Yet his movies feel under control even as his characters spin out of control. I missed the chance to see his latest film Mommy in time to consider it for the awards at the end of 2014, and I’m now heartily sorry for that after seeing it in Dallas this past weekend, because this remarkable piece of work would certainly have figured into my voting.
The mommy in the title is Diane “Die” Després (Anne Dorval), a 46-year-old widow in Quebec who dresses in tiny skirts, expresses herself coarsely, and not surprisingly has trouble holding down a job. The film begins with her taking custody of her 15-year-old son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) after he’s kicked out of a mental institution for seriously injuring another child. Die vows to take care of Steve even though the administrator (Michèle Lituac) warns her that all the maternal love in the world won’t be enough for Steve. She isn’t kidding. Steve has ADHD and attachment disorder, which leaves him with all the emotional control of a 4-year-old. We see just how difficult that is in an early scene when Steve comes home with a shopping cart full of gifts for his mom that he has taken without paying for. When Die tells him to take the stuff back, Steve throws a full-on furniture-breaking tantrum as a prelude to wrapping his hands around his mother’s neck and trying to strangle her.
The most noticeable thing about this movie is the weird framing it uses. Dolan cuts off the edges so that most of the film takes place in a perfect square in the middle third of the screen. Apparently, the filmmaker hit upon this idea while directing a music video for the French New Wave-pop band Indochine (which starred Pilon). The approach gets us right in the faces of these characters as they deal with their constantly roiling emotions. It’s effective, but one of the movie’s highest points is when Steve pries at the edges of the frame with his hands, and the picture expands to fill the whole screen while he rides a bike blissfully to the sounds of Oasis’ “Wonderwall.” The whole soundtrack is filled with similar 1990s mainstream rock that was popular during Dolan’s childhood — Sarah McLachlan, Counting Crows, Céline Dion, all presented without a trace of irony.
With a cast that’s as willing to go to the wall as their director, Dolan powerfully evokes the love that Steve is capable of toward his mom and Kyla (Suzanne Clément), the psychologically damaged former schoolteacher who lives across the street and tries to tutor him. Yet, the bike-riding sequence notwithstanding, Dolan never mistakes Steve’s mental condition for some kind of exalted spiritual state. The intractability of his violence forces his mother to consider the unthinkable: With a child like this, when do you start thinking of cutting your losses and saving yourself? And how do you live with that decision once you’ve made it? The movie’s greatest achievement is a sequence late in the film when Die flashes forward to the future she imagines for Steve, as he celebrates with her after graduating from high school, winning admission to college, and getting married — all the things we know he’ll never be able to do. Photographed sumptuously by cinematographer André Turpin, the sequence is supremely joyful and beautiful, and it will crush you right down to the ground.
Mommy won the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and Canada submitted it for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, though it failed to make even the shortlist for a nomination. A movie like this is probably too weird and raw for the Oscar voters anyway. However, it is the first glimpse that North Texas has had of this unique and marvelous new talent, and it is a work of haunting power.
Starring Anne Dorval and Antoine-Olivier Pilon. Written and directed by Xavier Dolan. Rated R. Now playing in Dallas.[/box_info]