It’s at once understandable and baffling that Jane Campion’s jury awarded Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan’s 5th feature “Mommy” the coveted Jury Prize in Cannes this year. The film is altogether likable and tugs at heartstrings because it openly aims for them and, of Dolan’s films to date, it’s the most eager to please. But it underwhelms for the very same reasons.
Director: Xavier Dolan
Running time: 139 minutes
Set against the fictional backdrop of new Candaian legislation, allowing overtaxed parents to unconditionally enter their behaviorally disturbed children into medical facilities, the movie tells the story of a love-hate-fear relationship between a single mother Diane (Annne Dorval) and her hyperactive adolescent son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon). Also written by Dolan, it’s the least ostensibly sexual of his scripts and concentrates on such universally embraceable themes as the uplifting, exasperating, redeeming familial bond and the never-ending yearning for freedom. At his best, Dolan shows in his writing an uncanny understanding of human psychology and finds its expression in inconspicuously staged scenarios (“J’ai tué ma mère (2009, I Killed My Mother)”, “Tom à la ferme (2013, Tom at the Farm)”).
With this latest work you can still sense that fine radar at work in the characters he creates- vividly drawn, fueled by passion and impulses- but there’s also a less satisfactory narrative arc in terms of plot development to be observed. The introduction of the neighbor Kyla (Suzanne Clément), arguably the most interesting character of the movie, first jolts the somewhat flatlining storyline back to life. And the ensuing unconventional ménage à trois does hold your attention for a while, before another bottleneck seems to be reached and you realize nothing except easy appeals to common sympathy seems to be driving this thing forward. Dolan is nothing if not an instinctive writer though. And you notice that sometimes even better in what he leaves unsaid- in this case the whole back story of the mysterious Kyla, who would rather spend time with a mother-son duo with a penchant for violence than with her own husband and child. Never fully explained, she becomes an unknowable but thoroughly intriguing figure that serves as the much needed catalyst in a duet that otherwise would’ve long grown old.
The direction is equally fine; not unflawed nor particularly challenging. Possibly taking a cue from the criticisms made for going overboard visually with Les amours imaginaires (Heartbeats) and Laurence Anyways, Mommy is relatively subdued in optical terms. Gone are the fanciful, indulgent colour sprees, substituted by a more grounded, quotidian look. Of course there are still the occasional sequences of surreal prettiness, like a golden boy falling slo-mo onto a bed drenched in golden light spilling through golden curtains, and, let’s be honest, even when he goes for shabby, there’s that slight rosy tint to a Dolan film. But overall it’s a controlled aesthetic that serves the story well and would likely offend no one.
At other places, though, Dolan displays an ambition to up his directorial game, only to mixed results. Most obvious is his choice to play with the aspect ratio of the film, which looks unusually narrow for the majority of the running time. It takes some getting used to, but at least this viewer sees that approach as an effective way to leave out the rest of the world and focus on the predicament of those portrayed by simply chopping off the panoramic view. However, the couple of times he expands the field of vision to the normal, wide format and back again, coinciding with the sudden sense of liberty or returning despair experienced by the characters, feel too literal to be called genius. Also less than ideal are the scenes where he goes for the warm and fuzzy moments shared by damaged people, which often come across as forced, and the way he uses music in this film, with the loudly soothing score and the Top 40-friendly soundtrack both being a tad too pushy.
All three principal actors are strong. Suzanne Clément plays Kyla with the necessary reticence and makes you see in her a woman finally allowing herself to be happy with her crazy neighbors. Anne Dorval is highly watchable as the hot mess of a mom with partially dyed hair and bejeweled jeans. Even though her performance still betrays a hint of shrill mechanics in scenes of aggressive confrontation, she’s delightful in her sassy body language and shows especially good timing in her delivery of feisty one-liners. Even more impressive is lead actor Antoine-Olivier Pilon, whose Steve is explosive, goofy, sweet, flirty, sometimes all at the same time. The instability of his mind and the depth of his anger are beautifully portrayed in a scene set in a Karaoke bar. Bringing three distinct personalities to the screen, these three actors keep you engaged and invested even when the storytelling itself slackens, so that even moments as mundane as taking a group photo end up pregnant with emotion.
Avoiding to a large extent any controversial subject or subversive stance, opting for a pleasantly inobtrusive visual style, coasting a lot more than previously on compassion and basic kindness of the heart, there might be shouting, fighting and maiming galore in “Mommy”, but it might also just be the most widely accessible and least risky movie Xavier Dolan has made so far.