Dir. Xavier Dolan. Canada. 2014

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As you probably already have heard, Xavier Dolan’s Mommy is not a laid-back inquiry into the joys of motherhood, but a shout-em-down contest of wills between Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon), an out-of-control teenager suffering from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and his mother Diane Després (Anne Dorval), whose parental skills are severely challenged. Needless to say, there can be no winners in such a contest. Winner of the Jury Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, Mommy is shot in a 1:1 aspect ratio which is like living inside of a cardboard box with no windows. This choice may seem appropriate to the director, but, for the viewer, it feels like always being short of breath.

Supported by a potpourri of 90s biggest hits, Mommy takes place in 2015 in a fictional Canada where a new law has been passed allowing parents to put their children in an institution without the need for any messy legal proceedings. If this is such a futuristic development, one wonders why the setting is not like maybe a few more years into the future. “Mommy Dearest,” who wears a chain around her neck with the word “mommy” on it perhaps to remind herself of who she is supposed to be, has to come and rescue her son from a boarding school that he seems to have playfully set on fire. Steve, however, does not seem overly thrilled with the idea of going home.

Diane, whose clever nickname is “Die,” tells the school that she is poor, has no job and is not able to take care of Steve, but this alleged poverty is never seen in the film. Once the slender, blond teenager who looks like a male fashion model on Ecstasy, is home, as they say in the vernacular, the something hits the fan. If you are enamored by yelling, screaming, cursing, fighting, and a large helping of general craziness, you have come to the right place. The mood lightens a bit, however, when Diane asks her next-door neighbor Kyla (Suzanne Clement) to tutor Steve while she looks for work. Kyla actually reminds us of a real person and introduces a touch of sanity to the household, but we should not get carried away with the sanity stuff. 

Though she provides an antidote to the dynamic duo, Kyla has some problems of her own, not the least of which is a speech impediment that prevents her from working at her job as a 7-9th grade teacher. Steve seems to like her okay at first, but soon tests her resolve. When he grabs her necklace, she shows him who’s boss, and his respect for her increases, at least to the point where he doesn’t swear at her every minute of the day. Mommy moves from crisis to calm and back again without any substantial character growth, plot development, or psychological insight. While I have had only brief experience working at a psychiatric hospital for adolescents, what seems obvious is that children, ADHD or not, feed off an adult’s resistance and that a softer tone often works better than always getting sucked in to their tantrums.

This director, however, does not appear to be genetically engineered for subtlety and restraint. Ultimately, while there are individual moments when everything comes alive such as the scene when the three of them dance in the kitchen, individual moments of uplift do not make for a meaningful experience as a whole. In spite of some superb performances, Mommy is less a character study than a lack of character study. One is tempted to ask what the point of the film is. It seems to be saying that those who tell you how much they love you are the first ones to betray you. Not a happy or even a truthful message.


Howard Schumann

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