Directed and Written by Xavier Dolan
I have mixed feelings about this film. There is no doubt that Xavier Dolan is a massive talent in the industry, with five feature films under his belt by the age of 25. It is certainly nothing to scoff at. Mommy is my first Dolan film, though I have read about it and Dolan’s film output to some extent; each film looks intriguing in some way. They look like the sort of dramas that I miss, that seem so rare these days – especially with so much of the genre heading to television. However, unlike most television dramas, this is a very personal and intimate film, and it is something that feels as if it is close and meaningful for Dolan. He has come full circle in less than six years; after his first film I Killed My Mother in 2009, four films later we return to the mother/son relationship. This time however, our perspective is dominantly from the female characters. There is no doubt that he is an original writer and this is most obvious in the airtight script that doesn’t miss a beat, whether it be a bit of dark humour within the witty dialogue or the many exchanges between son Steve and mother Diana. Emotionally then this film is a one hell of a ride!
To begin the film Steve is released from a detention centre, and initially all he expresses is a joyful love for his mother. It is slightly too sentimental for my tastes, especially with a Dido track in the background. While Steve is a well written character, Diana is perhaps more so with her memorable sense of humour and stubborn attitude. Naturally then, forces collide and it doesn’t take too long for us to witness Steve’s wild mood swings. Diagnosed with ADHD, he loves his mother with all his heart, which is a lot bigger than it seems when we see him hit the other extremity of his personality, resulting in the two to exchanging many verbal barbs in a variety of ways. It reminded me intensely of the countless times I had horrid mood swings, screaming at my mother at one moment, then suddenly apologetic and guilty barely an hour later. ‘Die’ is a single parent, and the father’s absence is not made explicitly clear. Having grown up with a single Mum I can tell it is not an easy job, especially when the father is completely out of the picture. I was lucky that I had a father to rely on, even if I didn’t see him often, and this is another layer to this film – showing us the possible effect of a single mother struggling to live her own life, while trying to deal with a young adult male on her own. She now has an extra worry to add to her troubles with finance, romance and her dwindling social life.
Die finds some relief from her troubles in the form of friendly neighbour Kyla, who in turn who becomes Steve’s tutor and helps with his behavioural problems, but more importantly she understands him.. The two form a close relationship that borders on love, though this is never addressed, despite Kyla’s husband becoming increasingly wary of the amount of time she is spending across the road. The bond these two share is as well executed as the relationship between Diana and her son, and as Kyla becomes a part of their lives, the triangle of personalities is handled with an effortless touch.
The ending to the second act and the entire third act is masterful in it’s dramatic storytelling. Our emotions bounce up and down much like Steve’s do, building to a riveting final half hour that at first seems confusing, but on reflection makes perfect sense. And like so many other films I seem to be writing about recently, it is the realistic depiction of these situations that really makes them shine, as I have found myself in many similar situations during my younger years.
Despite the praise that this film deserves, there are numerous flaws present that stop the experience from being as smooth and immersive as it could have been, especially given the strong emotional attachment one can make with the characters. A major reason for this is the extremely odd 1:1 aspect ratio, not to mention soundtrack choices like Dido and Oasis’ Wonderwall – which I suppose isn’t so bad, but the way it is used increases the sentimental feeling mentioned earlier that does not match the rather dark tone of the film.
Now I am sure that people will argue that this 1:1 presentation adds to the claustrophobia felt by the characters, which they no doubt all feel in different ways. I don’t buy this notion however, and honestly it sounds pretentious as all hell. At least half the screen real estate isn’t utilised, resulting in a visually cramped film that may very well visually match what the characters are going through, but this one advantage creates countless other disadvantages. There is no memorable camerawork to be found for example; in fact, for most of the movie it looks like the zoom feature was overused accidentally, resulting in countless cramped scenes in which we cannot clearly see what is happening. This is especially noticeable in facial close-ups. A perfect example of this is the scene above that can be seen on the poster of the movie. The image is too big for the tiny amount of screen space (shaped of course like a square), therefore lessening the impact of an emotional scene. This is a constant problem throughout the film and consistently bugged me until the movie finished. A square shaped movie on a giant, wide cinema screen does not look good. The movie way well have a moving narrative, but we are constantly forced to watch it through cramped camera-shots. And unlike Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja, the ratio the film has been shot in adds nothing to the visual quality.
3.5/5 – I can’t deny that this is a varied and emotional movie filled with the highs and lows that often come with the territory when raising young men, especially if a single parent. The realistic scenes of the mother and son screaming at each other brought back a lot of memories. It is all very real and very well written. However I do feel that it was somewhat predictable, while having more than its share of emotionally clichéd moments. This is not a perfect movie then, and certainly not one that looks good. But the emotional action and the realism in which this is realised makes this worth a watch any day of the week.