'Mommy' Dares to Explore What Happens When Parents Lose Control of Their Children

Xavier Dolan’s second film about the volatile relationship between a mother and her teenage son offers an experience related to the charged exchange between excess and control.

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Anne Dorval in 'Mommy.'

Mommy Written and directed by Xavier Dolan; with Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Suzanne Clement

In “Mommy,” his fifth feature, French-Canadian director Xavier Dolan goes back to his first movie, “I Killed My Mother.” Dolan was 19 when he made his first film, and 25 when he made this one; I admire both pictures, found them both enjoyable, and consider Dolan to be one of the more intriguing filmmakers of our day. However, there are differences between “I Killed My Mother” and “Mommy” that, while they do not diminish my respect for Dolan’s debut picture, have increased my appreciation for his latest one.

Both movies focus on the volatile relationship between a mother and her teenage son. “I Killed My Mother” was a kind of sadomasochistic attack by the boy (played by Dolan himself) on his mother, whom he loves and needs but also recoils from and claims to hate. Dolan was himself still a teenager when he directed the movie; I can’t recall another picture that skillful made by a director that young. For all its emotional complexity and visual richness, the result still had an adolescent edge to it, which accounted for its power. Most movies about the pains of growing up approach this topic in retrospect; “I Killed My Mother,” by contrast, seemed to erupt from within the adolescent angst itself, and it combined aggression and vulnerability, but with no hint of sentimentality or nostalgia.

Dolan’s debut was a passionate, artistically enthusiastic film clearly drawn to melodrama and even kitsch. All these also exist in “Mommy,” but the latter – which shared the 2014 Jury Prize at Cannes with a film by 83-year-old Jean-Luc Godard – was made when Dolan was already a young man, not a boy. Thus he was able to look back, not in anger but in a mature effort to understand, come to terms with, and maybe even forgive himself for the onslaught that was his first film. One reason why Dolan could do all this is that in “Mommy,” he is no longer able to play one of the leads. Instead, he cast a younger actor in the part of the son, and through him, is able to look at himself.

Dolan is not afraid of excess. His heroes are constantly on the verge of exploding, and the same might be said of the movie – which, all the while, remains under its maker’s absolute mastery. The experience “Mommy” offers us has to do with the charged exchange between excess and control. For example, Dolan chooses to set his film, with its retrospective element, in the near future, when parents who cannot control their children are legally obligated to send them to an internment camp. Diane, the mother (played by Anne Dorval, who also played the mother in Dolan’s first film), does not wish to send her son away, but eventually comes to the conclusion that she has no choice – just as the mother in “I Killed My Mother” had to send her son to boarding school with help from his father, her ex-husband, who has almost no involvement in the son’s life.

Antoine-Olivier Pilon in 'Mommy.'

In “Mommy” there is no father at all. Diane is a widow, whose son, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), is a burst of aggressive energy for which the label “ADHD” would be an understatement. But Diane herself is not exactly a soothing maternal figure. Volatile as well, she is a loud woman whose dress and conduct could be described as vulgar. Steve is both put off by her and oddly pulled in, all the while feeling repulsed even more. “Mommy” depicts the mother-son relationship as one of attraction and repulsion, love and hate, maybe even desire and repugnance. As full as culture (both high and low) is of artworks about mothers and sons, I can’t remember another treatment of the theme that is so exposed. That exposure is liable to be off-putting, but the movie’s unwillingness to avoid such an effect is precisely what makes it powerful.

Into Diane and Steve’s relationship comes another female figure, very different from these two explosive people hurtling down their collision course – just as in “I Killed My Mother” the boy’s teacher became a factor in the story of the mother and son. In this case, we have Kyla (Suzanne Clement), Diane and Steve’s neighbor. Although her own family life seems normal enough, she feels increasingly disconnected from it, and her own needs draw her deeper and deeper into the energy of Diane’s bond with her son. That energy is pained, but also powerful, and through Kyla’s involvement we come to see the emotional ambivalence of “Mommy,” which portrays this energy as both a need and a burden.

If “Mommy” contains an understanding, acceptance and even compassion that were absent from “I Killed My Mother” and an impressive precision of emotional nuance, Dolan does not openly strive for such restraint. The movie, which Dolan also edited himself, is visually assertive and vividly, almost achingly colorful, just like Diane and Steve. As he did in his previous movie, “Tom at the Farm,” Dolan plays with the size of the frame in order to express an optimistic broadness that is also profoundly sad. The movie is shot – expertly, by Andre Turpin – in a square frame that closes in around the characters who clash within it. However, twice in the course of the movie the frame widens into a rectangle which fills up the screen; both of those times are also moments of emotion that threatens to overflow – but stops before it does. Some have accused Dolan of excess mannerisms, which occasionally take on a narcissistic tinge. But I believe that his style, from his first picture on, has gone beyond mannerism to be a genuine form of self-expression, which in this movie finds its most disciplined and mature fulfillment yet.

All three of the leads do excellent work, but Anne Dorval is especially stunning. I won’t resort to the cliché “larger than life” to describe her performance, because nothing is larger than life in “Mommy” – except for life itself, which fills the picture and erupts from it. The result is a movie attesting to the gifts of an enormously promising filmmaker with a demanding, fascinating distinction all his own.