Say what you will about Freud, the dude was definitely getting at something.
After her son gets expelled from his school for starting a fire and injuring another student, Diane “Die” Després (Anne Dorval) is forced to take him out and raise him on her own. The only problem is that young Steven (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) is a bit of a hot head, who not only battles with ADHD, but is also going through the most challenging transition period of any guy’s life: Going from being a boy, to becoming a man. Because of this, Steven usually lashes out uncontrollably at those around him, is unpredictable as to when his mood will change, and generally doesn’t know how to love his mother and treat her with the respect she deserves. That looks like it may all change, however, once their neighbor, Kyla (Suzanne Clément), shows up and begins tutoring Steven on such subjects as math, English, and, according to Steven at least, sex. But even she has a dark side that may get in the way of the relationship between Die and Steven, or may even help them reinvigorate it. It’s all sort of up in the air.
Xavier Dolan makes me mad. Not because his movies are incredibly pretentious, or because they seem to all deal with this idea of self-entitlement, but because he’s literally three years older than me, already has five movies to his name, and has been granted all sorts of critical acclaim since day one. If there’s somebody out there in this world who I loathe more, honestly, I don’t know if I’d be able to find them – Xavier Dolan is my arch-nemesis, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know this, nor even care.
Then again though, he does make some good movies, so I can’t be too upset with him.
And that’s what he has here with Mommy; a film that has garnered so much love and praise already, that I feel like me writing a review about it nearly six months after the fact won’t do much, but it’s been a movie on my mind since the day I first saw it, so why not? Because with Mommy, sure, it’s a great movie, but is it as perfect as everybody has been praising it as being? Definitely not, but there’s something interesting to that negativity. People haven’t really been upset with Mommy because it throws in there certain ideas about incest, sexual abuse, and even mental illness, it’s more that people have been upset with the movie for not having anything more to really say about it.
Which is, yes, definitely true. For the longest time, it seems like Dolan has something neat, or interesting to say about all of these themes and while it starts off as such, it ends up circling around saying the same thing, again and again. That these people are all inherently messed-up from all sorts of various problems, Dolan uses them as a way to show us that all you need is love, heart and humanity to get you through any sort of situation. It’s definitely a sweet idea, but it’s one that doesn’t necessarily break down the walls of what we’ve already seen or heard before – it’s basically just Dolan letting us know that people are people, and that’s it.
But even while Mommy doesn’t have anything new to say, it’s still engaging and incredibly watchable. My better-part is containing myself from the uttering the word “entertaining”, because it’s painstakingly clear that Dolan doesn’t want this piece to perceived in that way, but that’s sort of what happens when you put all of the right ingredients together and just let them do your thing. When you have wacky, unpredictable characters, thrown into a story that deals with their relationships together, have great performers, and toss in the Oedipus complex for good measure, then needless to say, there’s going to be some fun to be had.
Not just because it’s funny to see how wacky, unpredictable people interact with one another, but because Dolan never judges them or puts them on a peddle-stool. He literally sees them for who they are – troubled, messed-up, emotionally-repressed human beings who are just about ready to explode with anger and tension. That’s what really keeps the heart of this film at level with all of the other crazy shenanigans it portrays these characters of getting into; rather than showing them off as crazy loonies that can’t handle any bit of their emotions, Dolan instead shows us that what they’re going through, together as well as separate, is what you or I could be going through, too.
The only difference here is that they’re a bit nuttier.
And with that said, mostly everybody here is played up to a certain level of nuttiness that actually works for the movie, rather than being so incredibly over-the-top and working against it. As Die, Anne Dorval gives a ruthless performance of a woman who clearly loves her son, but also knows that he can be a total animal and needs to control him more and more. They have a sweet relationship, that sometimes does borderline almost too sweet, but it’s also one that’s believable and doesn’t make you think that there aren’t real life mother-son duos like this in real life. Dorval shows us that this Die woman clearly wants her son to be safe, normal, and even slightly sane, but also knows that it all comes with a price and is sometimes willing to let go of her morals because of that. This transition should make her detestable, but it doesn’t, and actually works for helping to keep her character humane, rather than a caricature of what Dolan wants to show us as “the evil mom”.
Another character who is sort of in the same field as Die, is Suzanne Clément’s Kyla, who seems like there’s something downright deep and disturbing about her, but what that is, we never really know. That mystery about her is what keeps her mostly interesting, but also the fact that she genuinely cares for Steven and Die, even when she’s abandoning her own family because, also makes her feel like someone who is easy to care about. Even if her problems with stuttering and repression continue to act up, she still seems like a person that, at the end of the day, needs a nice, cozy, and warm hug to let her know everything will end up all right in the end.
Same goes for Steven, who is played with absolute ferocity by youngin’ Antoine-Olivier Pilon. As most old people say, “That kid’s chock full of piss and vinegar”, and that is exactly the case with Steven; he’s always spirited, clearly fuming with some sort of angst, and makes it seem like he’ll hump anything that walks, so long as they return the favor (sort of like me). In all honesty, his character is probably the most stereotypical out of anyone else here, but Pilon makes it worthwhile because he is constantly all over the place, making us wonder what he’s going to say or do next, and just who the hell he’s going to make feel uncomfortable in any certain situation. Like everyone else here, he’s a ticking time bomb that’s just about ready to explode, but when and where that happens, is constantly left up in the air and it’s always compelling because of that.
But don’t worry, Dolan, I won’t say “entertaining”, even if that’s exactly what it is.
Consensus: All artistry aside, Mommy is a constantly engaging, if somewhat familiar story about challenging people, thrown into a challenging situation, who are all just trying to make it out of it alive, and with some degree of sanity left in them.
8 / 10