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Film Review | Mommy

Xavier Dolan's latest is an arthouse film that packs all the emotional punch of a Hollywood melodrama

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
29 April 2015, 12:58pm
Mommy dearest: Anne Dorval and Antoine Olivier Pilon give it their all as a dysfunctional mother-son unit in Xavier Dolan’s intense, affecting and humane drama
Mommy dearest: Anne Dorval and Antoine Olivier Pilon give it their all as a dysfunctional mother-son unit in Xavier Dolan’s intense, affecting and humane drama
Twenty-six year old French-Canadian wunderkind director Xavier Dolan is one of the rising stars of international cinema, wowing critics and cinephile audiences since his 2009 debut I Killed My Mother, and setting himself up as a regular fixture of the European film festival circuit since.

As its title suggests, his latest film – Mommy – betrays his enduring interest in the mother-son dynamic. It’s also enjoyed the kind of enthusiastic reception we’ve come to expect from Dolan. But this isn’t a case of the cinematic taste-makers cozying up to an easy target to fawn over. At least, not in the case of Mommy – a strong drama that resists clichés at every turn.

The future doesn’t look too bright for the recently widowed and jobless Diane (Anne Dorval), whose troubled son Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon) has just been kicked out of the latest of a string of juvenile detention facilities he’s had the dubious pleasure of housing.

 

Financially and psychologically ill-equipped to deal with the ball of violent nerves that is Steve, Diane braves her new challenge on a day-to-day basis, threatening to crack at every turn.

But when Kyla (Suzanne Clément), a shy and kindly neighbour with psychological issues of her own, steps in to help the beleaguered duo out, Steve’s compassionate side begins to come to the fore more often.

Dolan has accomplished a double-whammy: this is ostensibly an arthouse film that packs all the emotional punch of a Hollywood melodrama. Far from being the stylistic show-off you may expect owing to his young age, Dolan focuses on telling an engaging story and giving ample space to his capable performers, ensuring that we get a rich, meaty slice of cinema to sink our teeth into.

There are stylish touches though, to be sure – from the very way in which it’s framed (designed to mimic the aspect ratio of a mobile phone), to a particularly memorable bravura sequence in the film’s penultimate act. But these moments are few and far between, and serve only to enhance the core fiber of the story, not distract from it.

Dorval and Pilon have equal parts to play in the story – with Diane as the protagonist whose journey we follow, and Steve as its ongoing catalyst, facilitating twists and leaps of agony and ecstasy and back again. Playing Diane as a fading beauty facing no real prospects, Dorval masterfully manipulates a mixture of charisma and bitterness, and one of the film’s great pleasures is seeing her maternal side elbow it’s way through a morass of confusion and barely-repressed sadness.

Pilon, on the other hand, is all exterior: a ‘force of nature’ who appears to stand for the theatrical emotional cocktail inherent in all youth, while retaining the focus on the character’s individual tragedy. He’s annoying, lovable and even dangerous – in that order, and on repeat. He’s quite something to watch, and exactly what Dolan’s story needs.

Mommy runs a gamut of emotion without succumbing to either facile indulgence in misery and equally cheap twists and plot resolutions. Instead it’s a powerful tribute to the glorious mess of human relationships… which tend to boil to their most potent where family is concerned. 

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...
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