Xavier Dolan’s startling first feature, 2009’s “I Killed My Mother,” was an impressive debut for the 19-year-old Quebecois actor-turned-filmmaker. Three more films swiftly followed — “Heartbeats,” “Laurence Anyways,” and “Tom at the Farm” — which were less satisfying but allowed him to experiment with style. But now, at 25, Dolan has come full circle with a formidable step up.
“Mommy,” his fifth movie in as many years, brings the director back to themes of maternal angst and teen alienation first seen in “I Killed My Mother,” but cranks up the intensity with a terrific calibration of first-rate performances and emotional engagement. As Dolan’s characters endure a series of seismic up and downs, the movie maintains a vitality and movement that goes beyond craftsmanship to illustrate Dolan’s evolution as an artist.
Running over two hours, and padded with a few too many musical montages and the questionable use of an uber-slender 1:1 aspect ratio, “Mommy” occasionally distracts from its strengths with excessive technique—but in this case, the story begs for it, revolving as it does around a young man suffering from a lack of restraint. Antoine-Olivier Pilon delivers a fierce performance as Steve, a blond-haired figure of rage and sorrow who struggles with ADHD and a dangerous temper that puts him always on the verge of a violent outburst. His problems in school and at home place constant pressure on his single mother Diane (an equally vibrant Anne Dorval, who also played the title role in “I Killed My Mother”). As the movie begins, Steve has been released into Anne’s possession from psychiatric care, and his impedance on her life causes her to lose her job.
And that’s just a fragment of the first act. It doesn’t take long to illustrate just how much of a challenge Steve’s behavior presents for his beleaguered mom, as well as himself. Prone to psychotic tantrums, his uncontainable tendencies burst forth the first time his mother accuses him of stealing jewelry: Within a matter of seconds, he shifts from a cheerful grin to growling hateful epithets and thrusting his hands around her neck. These instances form a series of dynamic showdowns expertly staged throughout the movie to represent the unpredictability surrounding Steve at every moment. When he’s wound up, glass shatters, blood flows, and only his worried mom can bring him back to earth. Dolan captures Steve’s fits as they steadily materialize out of his fluctuating moods with a distinctive control over each scene’s changing tones.
Entering this fragile dynamic is Diane’s good-natured neighbor Kyla (Suzanne Clement), a stuttering ex-teacher who agrees to homeschool Steve and quickly finds herself swept up in the family dilemmas. As the trio bond and “Mommy” settles into a leisurely three-hander focused on their domestic life, the movie threatens to lose some of its visceral engagement to wishy-washy sentimentalism (a far greater crime than the playful technique of his movies “Heartbeats” and “Lawrence, Anyways”). Fortunately, just when “Mommy” starts to lose some of its luster with a prolonged sequence set to Oasis’ “Wonderwall,” it dials back the schmaltz with another unsettling development that threatens to compromise whatever progress Steve has made in gaining control of himself. Riddled with unpredictability, “Mommy” often marries the ingredients of a family drama with breakneck suspense.
However, “Mommy” ultimately develops a complex perspective from its title character. Dorval’s undulating expressions reflect the reservations she experiences whenever coping with her son’s darker side. Her uncertainty about how to process her son with relation to her own needs lends a continuing sense of anticipation over her plan to move forward. Dolan’s roaming camera and vivid color schemes help to emphasize the energetic quality of his characters’ subjectivity, as they’re alternately sad, scared and ebullient, but always gripped with feeling.
Though it can be gripping in the moment, the powerful ingredients at the root of “Mommy” regularly distract from its simple premise. But that alone is enough to make it a significant triumph in the context of Dolan’s career. As a director, he finally shows a willingness to work on the same wavelength of the material instead of adding distracting bells and whistles that overstate his characters’ grievances. In “Mommy,” when Diane experiences a fantasy of the life she wishes her son could lead, it appropriately concludes with a harsh reality check that ranks as the best piece of filmmaking in his career to date.
Does that make “Mommy” his best movie? That’s harder to ascertain. “I Killed My Mother” had the purity of a first feature that said everything with exactly the right degree of restraint to keep the material on credible ground. “Mommy” definitely contains evidence of attempts to push the premise beyond its limitations, though such efforts never derail its momentum.
Dolan’s youth naturally informs perceptions of his accomplishments. “Mommy” shows some indications of the director’s limited point of view: Even as he foregrounds Diane’s experiences, he barely elaborates on her background, and the bare-bones plot sometimes lends the feel of a distended character sketch. Yet “Mommy” has enough exuberance to smooth over these flaws, a description that applies to Steve’s resilient mother as well. “I’m full of hope,” she says in a later scene. For those saying that about Dolan for years, “Mommy” proves that the prolonged expectations haven’t been fruitless.
“Mommy” premiered this week at the Cannes Film Festival. It does not currently have U.S. distribution.