★★★ / ★★★★
In a fictional Canada, the so-called S-18 Bill has been passed which is designed to amend policies of the Canadian health services. Within it is the S-14 law which confers the parent of a child with behavioral problems, “in a situation of financial distress, physical and/or psychological danger, the moral and legal right to commit his child to a state psychiatric hospital without further legal review.” The story focuses on Diane (Anne Dorval) after her son, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), is kicked out of a detention center for having set fire to the cafeteria and gravely injuring a boy.
Written and directed by Xavier Dolan, “Mommy” hearkens back to the challenging European dramatic features of the ‘70s and ‘80s and it makes for a compelling watch. It is for audiences who crave to understand why people are the way they are and the actions eventually triggered by the difficult hand that life has given. It is easy to judge Diane’s trailer trash sort of lifestyle but the material is not interested in judgment. It aims to excavate hidden depths and yet avoiding to spell out answers every step of the way.
Pilon’s performance is shocking in the best way possible. Throughout the picture, I was convinced that he was picked off the street—perhaps an actual detention center—and asked to just be himself in front of the camera. The sheer anger displayed on screen is so raw that at times I felt very uncomfortable.
His mere presence, even though he is not particularly tall, commands an intensity so high that I was reminded of ace performers like Tom Hardy and Leonardo DiCaprio during certain scenes. I hope he continues to choose challenging characters as seen here because I think he has the potential to become not just any celebrity who appears in movies but a character actor who is respected for his craft.
Dorval and Pilon share a convincing mother-son chemistry. It is important that we believe they are a family first before being convinced that they really are dysfunctional. There is an excellent, tension-filled scene that involves Diane suspecting that Steve has stolen groceries. A verbal confrontation inevitably turns into a threat of physical violence. We wonder if the writer-director will allow his material to go there. Dolan is an envelope-pusher, as he had been in his prior work, and he does not disappoint here.
Dolan is, as usual, playful with his images and choice of soundtrack. Bright colors pop out on purpose and the music often has a sense of irony compared the images we are seeing. But it is in the use of the 1:1 aspect ratio that surprised me this time around. This is a most effective technique because I found myself focusing on the characters, especially their faces, instead of the objects and other distractions around them. And although we see the story unfold in a square, the lives within it are far from perfect.
“Mommy” is dramatic, histrionic, and bold—but it works. Offering impressive performances by Pilon, Dorval and Suzanne Clément, who plays a mysterious neighbor with a stutter, it may not be easy to sit through, especially with a running time of one hundred thirty minutes, but it does present a story worth telling.
One can argue that it is about how to not parent. Some may claim it is about a critique of our society’s inability to deal with people with behavioral problems. But I say the picture is about empathy: toward parents, neighbors, children, to people who are only doing their jobs. It is a rich film and for that it is very much worth seeing.