In Xavier Dolan’s Cannes’ Jury Prize winner, Mommy, the overarching themes of failure, retribution, forgiveness, and redemption are carved in the direction of growth. Yet, by the film’s measured conclusion, its fundamental message focuses much more on the cyclical nature of life. This thoughtful, exacting, inspiring film dislodges the conventions of mother/son relationships, and, in the process, opens a dialogue about identity in a world founded on fixed labels and onerous expectations.
Commendable performances abound through Mommy’s depictions of a harried, devoted, widowed mother, Diane (Anne Dorval); her unbalanced, ADHD-diagnosed, 15-year-old son, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon); and their peculiar, stuttering neighbor, Kyla (Suzanne Clément). A triad of distinct, disparate personalities—one enterprising, one antagonistic, and one introverted—the characters converge on a stage of unsteady circumstances.
Diane, or “Die,” collects Steve from a youth correctional facility after he is expelled for setting a fire that severely burned another youth. Upon returning to their new home, Die sets ground rules and embarks on a home schooling plan, all while under the careful, curious gaze of Kyla, obsessively peering out of her window from across the street.
As Kyla timidly ingratiates herself into their lives, Die and Steve navigate treacherous terrain, learning how to live together again while asserting their independence. In one moment, mother and son engage in playful squabbling; the next, they’re violently slamming each other against the walls and bashing skulls with splintered picture frames. It’s a love/hate relationship through and through, although whether the former emotion prevails over the latter is continuously up for debate. All the while, Kyla, on sabbatical from teaching high school after developing a stutter, steadily disregards the needs of her own family—a long-term boyfriend and a young daughter—in favor of the brazen, combative, unconventional one that she finds so unfamiliar and thoroughly invigorating.
Each character repeatedly confronts and betrays the expectations imposed upon them. Steve is a young punk. He gets into skirmishes and curses like a sailor, but he also appreciates Italian opera and dreams of one day attending Juilliard. Die, left alone to care for Steve after her husband passed away from cancer, hustles to make ends meet. Her gaudy outfits characterize her as a vacuous bimbo, but her resourcefulness and spirited nature guide her and Steve through mess after thorny mess. And Kyla, the unremarkable housewife, longs for anything but the sheltered, provincial life she’s made for herself. Unlike the unconditional love that Die bestows upon Steve, Kyla all but abandons her motherly responsibilities. Far from cookie cutter characterizations, Dolan floods his hothouse drama with unbridled tension and eruptions of emotion.
Mommy features its share of predictable plot points, too: a lost job, a subpoenaed lawsuit, and a tepid romance. Still, it never succumbs to the drains of hackneyed storytelling. Dolan, only 25 years old with four other features already under his belt, undeniably possesses an eye for resplendent imagery without forfeiting a mind for composed narrative madness. He sets up conventions and then turns them inside out, whether it’s an uncomfortable kiss between mother and son or the slitting of wrists, nothing ever turns out the way we expect it to.
Dolan continues to defy expectations by framing most of his film in the unorthodox 1:1 aspect ratio, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere from the get-go. Characters are shot in the middle of the screen, tightly focused with little space for exposition. And yet, somehow, the director manages to design stunning, moments inside of an image that is ultimately nothing more than the square of a smartphone video. When Dolan momentarily widens the screen to the full 2.39:1 effect, these sequences become that much more eye-catching and impactful.
Use of slow motion—a potentially banal technique—is wonderfully employed and adds a sense of unobstructed freedom despite the physically narrow surroundings. One scene finds Steve in an empty parking lot, swinging a shopping cart around in circles while yelling, “Who’s your daddy?” The sequence is so simple, yet beautifully shot and emphatically powerful, particularly in relation to Steve’s abrupt outburst of violence in the following scene. Dolan builds us up and lets us down again in one fell swoop, disappointing us with Steve’s recurring flaws while underscoring his volatile nature.
It’s no wonder then that Mommy’s best scene is accompanied by Céline Dion’s 1999 single “On ne change pas,” or “One Doesn’t Change.” Dolan lingers on Die, Steve, and Kyla as they partake in an impromptu dance party, demonstrating a bond developing organically between the three. And yet, as much as these characters unburden themselves by revealing their hidden, stunted aspirations—flouting against impositions of how, what, and who they should be—Mommy ultimately argues that, really, we never truly change. This thoughtful balance of bearing hope for a better future while accepting the things that we cannot change is beautifully illustrated in a stunning film by an undaunted director. I wouldn’t change a thing.