“Mommy” is the fifth feature film by 25-year-old Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan. Four of those films so far have been graced with a premiere at the prestigious Cannes film festival, and the one exception of these five, 2013’s “Tom at the Farm” premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where it was awarded the Golden Lion top prize. “Mommy” won a Jury Prize at Cannes this year.
Yet to get too caught up in the praise and awards bestowed upon young Dolan and his work would risk losing sight of the films themselves. Luckily, “Mommy” lives up to its praise for the most part. It is not an extraordinary film, but it is quite good. It is very much grounded in the now (apart from its myriad of late ’90s to early ’00s pop hits), although it is a film made much more in the vein of ’60s and ’70s existentialist films such as Michaelangelo Antonioni’s “Red Desert” or Bob Rafelson’s “Five Easy Pieces.” It presents fully-formed characters and depicts their interactions with each other and their environments without trying to really push the film in any real direction. Thus, watching the film is more akin to enjoying a process than trying to reach a goal. A well-suited creative choice, as “Mommy” deals nicely with the very stuff of life: sadness, laughter, dancing, conversations, etc. It is largely a mood piece and captures many small moments that are so true to life yet rarely well-translated to the screen. It conveys an honest balance of comedy and drama, with an even tonal control of both, and indeed reflects life in the sense that comedy and drama really do live side by side, and sometimes only a moment apart. When the drama hits, it is predominantly strong. When the comedy arrives, it occasionally rivals the best of pure-blood comedies for wonderfully subtle visual gags.
Xavier Dolan and director of photography André Turpin’s unusual use of a 1:1 aspect ratio is put to great use. There are several masterfully claustrophobic shot-reverse-shots of conversations. The ‘tall’ feeling (even though it is actually a perfect square) ratio gives the entirety of the film a feeling reminiscent of a family portrait photo. The compositions prove to work well with choice, particularly in the framing of faces and bodies. This wonderfully encapsulates the portrait of a makeshift family that is the film. The makeshift family in question consists of Diane (who goes by “Die” for short), her troubled son, Steve, and their stuttering neighbor, Kyla. Die and Steve prove especially close given the absence of Steve’s father. The latch onto one another and seem to have very few outsiders involved in their lives. Steve does not hang out with other friends. Die doesn’t go out often. When they meet their new neighbor Kyla, she strikes a nice balance between the two and starts spending a lot of time at their house since her own husband seems to be rather generically negligent of her feelings.
Clocking in at just over two hours, “Mommy” shouldn’t feel all that long, but it does. Yet, not completely unlike “Boyhood,” its sense of duration may be a factor which makes it a strong example of what cinema can do that television cannot: tell a grand story in an intimate way without sprawling out of control or losing any of its personal flavor. There is a wealth of dramatic material, but it doesn’t necessarily feel crammed-in or dragged-out. It simply happens. And that’s no small feat. In this sense, it is very life-like. Also not unlike “Boyhood,” the aforementioned pop hits sometimes sneak in for no reason other than to feel iconic, but the montages they are paired with at least hit home in ways they don’t in “Boyhood.” One such montage set to “Wonderwall” starts out feeling silly but opens up into something memorable. The music mostly manages to feel essential rather than excessive when it appears.
Overall, “Mommy” is a strong piece of cinema which engages with familiar settings in new ways. Stylistically it comes from a familiar place without wearing its inspirations on its sleeve. It is not perfect, but is perfectly enjoyable, and shows the best still likely yet to come from Dolan, and that is an exciting prospect.Continue Reading Issue #30
1 hr. 14 min.
Anne Dorval, Suzanne Clément, Antoine-Olivier Pilon