As a dramatic examination of Québécois working class milieu and three of its more troubled denizens, “Mommy” hits high notes with glee. Yet while offering a shocking analysis of the very real struggles any family would face with a youngster suffering from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, “Mommy” boxes itself into a corner with an idiotic framing gimmick and an approach long on wind but short on substance.
The film’s young writer-director-editor-co-producer Xavier Dolan injects plenty of vitality into his film and his casting is extraordinarily fine. So “Mommy” looks like a missed opportunity where subject matter and approach clash more than they complement.
The film has gotten plenty of attention by debuting in Competition at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival (his fourth entry but first in that prestigious slot) and then wore the banner of Canada’s official foreign-language submission to the Academy Awards. (No, it didn’t make the cut.)
So Dolan has gotten people’s attention in the cinema world. Now he needs to find the discipline to bring his talents to bear in a deeper, more focused manner.
“Mommy” takes place in a slightly fictional near-future Canada that has adopted new laws the dictate parents must either take responsibility for emotionally disturbed children or hand them over to government detention centers.
This gets the film off to an awkward false start since the heart of the matter is not sci-fi futurism but a meat-and-potatoes realistically depicted blue-collar angst set in a suburban setting never identified but apparently in Montreal.
Anne Dorval (who starred in Dolan’s first feature, “I Killed My Mother”) plays Diane “Di” Deprés, the long-suffering, chain-smoking mother of a teenage son, Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon), who is thrown out of a school for setting fire to the cafeteria and seriously injuring a fellow student.
The kid is literally bouncing off walls as he tries to control an explosively violent temper seemingly tolerated by no one other than his widowed mom. What strikes a viewer as strange though is Di’s lack of sympathy for the injured victim of her son’s rage and her own cavalier attitude toward a well-meaning principal and later others who offer help. Dolan seems to be implicating if not blaming her for at least some of her son’s difficulties.
Although almost broke and losing a car to an accident in the film’s very first scene, Di and her son live in an upscale neighborhood where an overly friendly lawyer (undoubtedly with ulterior motives when it comes to foxy looking Di) and female neighbor offer help.
The neighbor is Kyla (Suzanne Clément), a former teacher suffering from some unnamed trauma that has caused a speech impediment. This may or may not have something to do with her sullen and mostly silent husband. In any event, Dolan never explains the mystery, making yet another unnecessary puzzle.
Most bizarrely of all and a thing that makes watching “Mommy” a genuine chore is Dolan’s decision to force cinematographer Andre Turpin to shoot his film in a square 1:1 aspect ratio. One searches fruitlessly for visual information on the sides of the frame where since the dawn of cinema directors have been able to indicate characters’ environment and spacial relationships.
It’s a needlessly constricting view, imposed on “Mommy” conceivably to evoke claustrophobia and limited options facing its characters but ultimately regressively uncinematic. This becomes all the more obvious when for two sequences, these reflecting hope and optimism, Dolan allows the movie frame to widen into a conventional format.
The in many ways equally dysfunctional family formed by Di, Steve and Kyla has its own curious, unexplored aspects. Just as Dolan implies incestuous undertones in the mother and son’s obscenity-laced conversations and teasing, you sense a possible homoerotic attraction between the two adult women. But Dolan leaves this unexplored.
Which seems to be the young filmmaker’s favorite mode — to suggest but never follow through on emotional connections or key backstory elements. The naked, vulgar struggles of the moment are all that’s on display, transpiring in the here and now in front of the camera. What’s behind these emotional displays remains unexamined.
It’s a frustrating experience for a viewer to try to decide what’s on the director’s mind or, for that matter, what’s on his characters’ minds. A more sophisticated or experienced filmmaker possibly could make this work — a story where everything is implied.
Yet here it feels more like a viewer doing the director’s work for him, where you imagine certain subtextual scenarios even when nothing rises to the surface of the film itself.
In the end, predictability takes a hold, where you wait and watch for the next outburst from Steve to doom once again his mommy’s best efforts to help him avoid institutionalization. The film, and lord knows Di herself, preaches hope. Yet the situation is never depicted in any other way but as hopeless.
The mother has none of the training or emotional equipment, having barely grown up herself and still coping with the aftermath of her husband’s death, to deal with her son’s big-league emotional troubles. And Steve finds no way to take even the slightest responsibility for his words or actions.
Even Di’s nicotine addiction can be seen as a willful defiance of health norms or at least would be if the story weren’t set in Quebec, an area I personally have found the absolute worst this side of China for second-hand smoke. So Dolan may mean absolutely nothing by it; it’s just part of the environment in which he grew up.
But chain smoking does symbolically fit with Di’s own to-hell-with-it attitude toward the world as it bears down on her, robbing her even of her car as she is forced to take in her out-of-control son. Nothing ever goes right for these three and the movie can’t be said to end on an upbeat note.
You sense that Dolan greatly emphasizes with his characters. But that doesn’t stop him from dumping shit on them from first (square) frame to last.
Opens: January 23, 2015 (Roadside Attractions)
Production companies: Metafilms, Sons of Manual, SODEC, Téléfilm Canada
Cast: Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Suzanne Clément
Director/screenwriter/editor: Xavier Dolan
Producers: Nancy Grant, Xavier Dolan
Director of photography: Andre Turpin
Production design: Colombe Raby
Costume designer: Xavier Dolan, François Barbeau
R rating, 139 minutes