A two-hour and twenty-minute French-Canadian film about a trashy single mom and her violent son filmed in a sort of squeeze box that looks like an iPhone video? Sign us up!
So, yeah, there was a certain trepidation in seeing 24-year-old writer/director Xavier Dolan’s intimate film of struggle and drama, but when we walked out The Boy—The Boy!—pronounced it in his Top 5 for 2014. (Said list was previously at Top 4, so hard-pressed was he to recall truly outstanding films from last year.)
Yeah, it’s good. It’s not for everyone for a variety of reasons, but all-in-all, it’s an amazing achievement.
The setup is simple: Widowed mom Die (“dee”) Després gets called down to juvie to pick up her son, who has set the cafeteria on fire and injured a kid, and the institution will no longer care for him. She loses her job as a result (at least partly, there’s more going on there), and must simultaneously figure out how to get money and homeschool her wild child.
Going on welfare is straight out, interestingly, just as it was in 2 Days, 1 Night. It’s almost as if some people—even in socialist paradises!—inherently realize how destructive it is to the soul to not work for one’s own keep.
Anyway, Steve is no run-of-the-mill wild child, what with his penchant for setting things on fire, smashing things, groping inappropriately, and so on. Fortunately, Die’s neighbor Kyla is a teacher on sabbatical who is amenable to helping her and Steve out.
Kyla has her own issues, which she never actually discusses in the film, but which can be deduced fairly easily. There’s a distinct tension between her and her emotionless husband, and she’s distant from her young daughter.
The free-spirited (and even chaotic) Després clan is a sort of remedy for the buttoned-down Kyla, who seems fragile but who is actually fairly broad-minded. Steve and Die trade shocking foul-mouthed barbs over the dinner table and escalate their emotions pretty quickly, and de-escalate them almost as quickly.
So, right off the bat, one of my first worries about Mommy—that it would be boring—never comes to pass. All three main characters are interesting in their own ways, and where Steve and Die’s vulgarity could be tiring, there is genuine affection and good character underneath. Die’s apparent trashiness belies an interesting backstory, and she’s actually both acutely aware of her age (the actress herself is 54) and (at least it seemed to me) still mourning her husband, even though her philosophy doesn’t really allow for moping.
One of the movie’s other great achievements is making Steve likable. In the first few minutes, he’s described as having committed a horrible crime, one for which his mom reflexively defends him—not by proclaiming his innocence but by blaming the victim. I mean, you don’t want to say Steve is a monster, but the movie doesn’t soft-pedal the severity of his problems.
It’s so much the case that you have a sense of doom from the start, which the movie more-or-less encourages.
Dolan rather impressively uses his 1:1 screen ratio (they call it 1:1, but that should be a square, and this was very clearly a “portrait mode” rectangle) to create a claustrophobic, intimate feeling and at two points in the film to create huge emotional moments. And I mean, moments of real joy and heartache, which is rare enough at any aspect ratio.
The first time, he literally shows you what he’s doing, as if it were Steve himself breaking free. The second time takes place in Die’s head, and is one of the most heartbreaking montages I’ve ever seen, and it had passed before I realized what he had done. Very adept, but perhaps something he’s been mulling since he filmed I Killed My Mother, his autobiographical debut film five years ago.
Yeah, I’m impressed.
The only thing that seemed gratuitous to me is that this is a semi-futuristic film: The idea is that the health law has been amended such that a parent has the legal and moral right to commit a troubled child to an institution, with no third party confirmation. (I didn’t know that wasn’t already possible.)
Anyway, the acting was tremendous: Anne Dorval is utterly convincing as Die, and Suzanne Clemént is moving as Kyla. Their ease together may be due to the fact that they were both also in I Killed My Mother. But, whatever, along with Antoine Olivier-Pilon, and the portrait shot, it often feels more like we’re eavesdropping/spying than watching a movie.
I did not recognize Patrick Huard, Starbuck himself, as Paul, so humorless was he.
Obviously, this isn’t a film for everyone, because, you know, there’s a big old dysfunction right in the middle of proceedings. Despite that, there’s a lot of hopefulness here, a lot of fun, a lot of melodrama amongst the actual drama and, like I said before, The Boy puts it in his top 5 for 2014, which is a pretty respectable recommendation for any such drama.