TIFF Review: 'Mommy'

(Canada, 134 min.)
Written and directed by Xavier Dolan
Starring: Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Suzanne Clément
Programme: Special Presentations (Canadian Premiere)
Photo courtesy of TIFF.
Good news, TIFF-goers: Mommy lives up to the hype. Xavier Dolan’s Cannes sensation (and Jury Prize winner) finally comes home with its Canadian Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this Tuesday. It would be an understatement to call Mommy Xavier Dolan's best film yet. Dolan, coming to TIFF with his fifth film at the ripe ageof twenty-five, proves himself a cinematic force with this searing, audacious film.

Previous Dolan films might show some missteps—the kind of things for that invite quippy comments such as, ‘… but it's good for a filmmaker of his age,” or “even Orson Welles didn't make Citizen Kane until he was 26...”. (That last one is totally my bad.) These backhanded comments on the marks of a voice finding its best form of expression might be recurrent from anyone who’s been as hot and cold on Dolan’s films as I have been, but Mommy irons out all the kinks in Dolan's flamboyant visual flair and harnesses them to great effect. It's a work of a master, not simply a young master, for Mommy proves unequivocally that Dolan is a major talent. There are no buts about it: Mommy is a milestone.

Mommy feels like the film Dolan intended to make in his breakout 2009 work I Killed My Mother—the parallels are unmistakable but it’s not as if he’s repeating himself—for it tells a comparable portrait of the tumultuous yet loving relationship between a mother, Diane aka 'Die' (Anne Dorval), and her son, Steve (Antoine Pilon). Their bizarre relationship is doubly unique thanks to a new clause in near-future Canada that allows parents to send their unruly kids packing. Steve, defined by an overdose of ADHD, comes out of the program and back into his mommy's care following an incident at the rehabilitation centre. Steve is to Diane what heroin is to a junkie and vice versa. These family members thrive off one another, colliding in self-destructive highs that bring them together as much as they tear them apart.

Mommy is an exhausting, full-throttle emotional journey as mother and son yell expletives at one another and go head-to-head in coarse Québécois vernacular. Their love has its own language—that of the George and Martha variety—and Mommy amplifies the aggression of their relationship by raising the decibel of their endless screeching matches to the highest level. Mommy pummels the audience with near-deafening passion.

Dolan makes the emotional force of Mommy even tighter by employing a claustrophobic 1:1 aspect ratio much like the frame of an Instagram shot. The snug framing makes Mommy almost unbearably intimate as Die and Steve are closer than any mother-son duo have been shot before. (DP André Turpin deserves full praise for making Mommy such a visual thrill.) The brazen square shot of Mommy lets Dolan take his signature visual flair to great heights. Dolan sometimes lets aesthetics and visual flourishes get the better of his previous films—remember that scene where it rains scarves in Lawrence Anyways?—but Mommy sees the director control all the advantages and drawbacks of such visual audacity to the best effect possible. Style is substance this time around, and Dolan's constricted framing of Mommy encloses this tightly, perversely knit family in a world of their own. The fever of Die and Steve flows right into the negative space on either side of the screen.

Dolan almost blows it when Steve opens his arms and stretches the aspect ratio to a complete widescreen during one freeing sequence where Steve, Die, and their neighbour-friend Kyla (Suzanne Clément) sail through the streets on their bikes and long board. The sequence gives Mommy a cathartic release as this happy interlude acts as the eye of the storm before the tension between the family reignites and explodes with greater consequences. The expansive intermezzo in the visuals briefly reveals how full and great a complete widescreen can be, but the return to the Instagrammy 1:1 ratio almost suffocates the viewer with its unrelenting magnification of the film's raw emotion. The same widescreen manipulation appears towards the end of Mommy in a devastating rejection of convetional happy endings. The effect is very, very powerful.

The nifty aspect ratio only amplifies what's already in the frame, though, since Mommy features some powerhouse performances. Anne Dorval is a tour de force in her second titular mommy role of the Dolan oeuvre. Spunky, sexy, and flamboyant to the hilt, Dorval's lively performance is one of the best of the year. She rocks Die's flamboyant threads (Dolan did the costumes too) in total MILF mode, mashing Die's gum and strutting her stuff in a provocatively sexualized performance. She exposes Die's ugly side, too, while balancing both her character's desire and her inability to be a mother with her heart-wrenching emotion. It’s easily one of the standout performances of the year.

Mommy likens itself to I Killed My Mother, too, in that the mother is amply more likable than her son is. Steve, like Mother's Hubert, is an annoyingly bratty child who is bound to test any viewer's patience and, in turn, make Die's devotion to her son twice as compelling. Steve, unrelentingly aggressive and boisterous, pulls pranks with little regard to the consequences of his actions akin to many contemporary youth (and adults…) of today’s OCD Internet culture who fire off missives and Tweets with no regard for the way their actions and words affect others. The social media friendly aspect ratio of Mommy makes the parallels more resonant for today’s self-obsessed selfie culture.

More likely to win more sympathy, though, is Kyla, who is played remarkably and compassionately by Clément. Kyla suffers from a crippling speech impediment relating to the stress of her career as a teacher, but assuming a maternal role with Steve in an attempt to help Die lets her find her voice again. Clément holds much of the film together when it's almost too much to bear by making Kyla a troubled onlooker seduced by the intoxicating violence of Die and Steve's relationship.

Take, for example, one of the highlight scenes of Mommy where Die invites Kyla over for dinner. The stuttering supper guest gets an awkward show to go with dinner when Die and Steve have an impromptu dance party in the kitchen to the tunes of Céline Dion. (In French, no less!) This weirdly sexual scene sees Kyla watch Die and Steve shake to Céline and have lots of fun… but then they pull together a bit too closely and Steve runs his hands up to his mother’s breasts for just a beat too long before she tells him to stop. It’s creepy in its own beautiful way, but the Céline centrepiece is easily the most delicious slice of a very rich film as it brings together Dolan’s resourceful way of layering character, song, and image into one very tightly packed punch.

Dolan truly hits his stride with Mommy. The trademark visuals, style, and energetic soundtrack all display a mastery of the art form, but it’s really his ability to craft such deep, authentic characters and draw out such uniformly strong performances from his cast—and to do so within unconventional confines of film form—that proves him a master. That he made such a great film only at the age of twenty-five, well, only makes Mommy all the more impressive. Take that, Orson Welles!

Rating: ★★★★★ (out of ★★★★★

Mommy screens:
-Tuesday, Sept. 9 at 9:30 pm at the Princess of Wales
-Wednesday, Sept 10 at noon at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Please visit www.tiff.net for more information on this year’s Festival.

Update: Mommy opens at The ByTowne on Oct. 31.
Update 2: Mommy screens at Canada's Top Ten on Jan 3 &4.