Director: Xavier Dolan
Stars: Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon
4 (out of 5) Globes
Everyone acts like a child in “Mommy,” the fifth feature from 25-year-old French-Canadian actor-auteur Xavier Dolan. That includes teenaged hellion Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), introduced after setting a fire at school, to the two women who split the duties of doting on him. It might be tempting to read this as a product of its maker’s youth, that he can’t imagine people any older. But he already knows that people never really get that much wiser; no one figures things out, but just keep closing themselves off within little compartments — inside relationships, families, jobs, hobbies. The main trio in “Mommy” — like the protagonists in Dolan’s “Heartbeats” and “Laurence Anyways” — take a brief respite inside their own cloistered mini-community, even if it’s bound to burst apart and re-expose them to the disarray of the real world.
Despite the title, the focus isn’t just on Steve’s mother, Diane (aka “Die”), played by Anne Dorval (who played a less tolerant mom in Dolan’s directorial debut, “I Killed My Mother”). Forced to home-school her untameable, sometimes violent son, she winds up getting help from Kyla (fellow Dolan regular Suzanne Clement), a bored neighbor from across the street. She’s a stammerer, and she finds herself oddly drawn to both the free-spirited Die and the giddily destructive Steve. They form a tight unit, one impervious to any outsiders who try to worm in, and one riddled with odd but never quite acted-upon sexual tension.
“Mommy” opens with a mysterious text about it being set in the near-future (2015, as it were), where a new, controversial law allows parents to lock up their children at will. Dolan lets that hold in the back of viewers’ minds for two hours (of two hours and 20) before doing anything with it, in part to underline the fragility of the group dynamic. Their microcosm isn’t exactly freeing. Dolan shot “Mommy” in a painfully narrow framing style, which is an actual box — thinner, even, than old television sets. (In fact, we’re so used to the shape of old TV sets that “Mommy”’s frame appears thinner than it actually is, as though it was more tall than wide, which it isn’t.) There are a number of reasons why Dolan used this aspect ratio. If you’re less charitable, one could say it was to get people’s attention. But one good reason was for the two times the screen suddenly opens up, in two sequences of true glory, one of them the best of several scenes about the transcendence of pop music (including, yes, Oasis).
It also underlines the push-pull between chaos and constraint that runs through “Mommy.” Dolan’s shots, as usual, are immaculately composed, often placing characters in the middle of frames. (And sometimes in his favorite trick, slow-motion.) At the same time the actors are free to play around with their characters, and their scenes have a free-form quality — fitting since, narratively, it can be a bit redundant, spinning its storytelling wheels while stewing in the little corner of the world the characters have created.
Dolan, as in his other films, is allergic to binary takes on his characters, who are never easily labeled and who resist being reduced to mere types. Steve can be impossibly violent, but he can also be sincerely sweet, and most of the film has him swinging somewhere between both sides. (Like Dolan, he loves hanging with older women.) It’s neither a drama nor a comedy but both. There’s a feeling that just about anything could happen — that a serious film could include a shout-out to “Home Alone” or milk agony out of a scene where someone karaokes Andrea Bocelli at a dive bar. It seems to be making itself up on the spot, even while it’s unfailingly rigidly controlled. Every step it makes — right down to, but especially, its final scene — it makes both instinctually and with utter, disarming confidence.