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‘Mommy’ and Me: Why Xavier Dolan’s Film Is This Writer’s ‘Boyhood’

'Mommy' and Me: Why Xavier Dolan's Film Is This Writer's 'Boyhood'

“What
did you think of it?” a colleague asked me immediately after the screening,
after I had heard his answer to the same question. I was at a loss for words,
and inarticulately sputtered, “I have… feels.” It’s as concise as I could have
worded it, so soon after the film, one I’d been anticipating for months. It was
a film I would not stop talking about since its production had been announced,
since it had premiered at Cannes, and since I had watched the trailer on a loop
and teared up each time. My expectations were high. And though it was a messily
worded response, it was not a terribly inaccurate way of distilling my reaction
to Xavier Dolan’s fifth film Mommy.
But, one word or one thousand, they won’t be a totally satisfying way of
describing my reaction to Mommy,  the same problem I had with his first film I Killed my Mother. “Is this your Boyhood?” he asked, when I said I felt
connected to the subject matter. I replied, “Yeah, this and I Killed My Mother are my Boyhood.”

It’s
true, Dolan’s first feature, which he made at 18, is one of the most, if not the most, personal films I’ve ever
experienced. And by “my Boyhood”, I
mean that it’s the film that hits close to home. It’s jarring and almost
soul-crushingly close to the relationship I have with my mother. But I fully
admit that it’s also arguably the weakest in his filmography, filled with an
indulgence that certainly may make sense both contextually and extra-textually
(he was 18), but grates quickly. (Its
latter half also feels a bit unfocused, yet houses some of the strongest
emotions.) To fully elaborate on how I feel about I Killed My Mother, and Mommy
for that matter, would to divulge things about my personal life, a thing I
have been, up until now, hesitant to do.

In
a more boringly qualitative way: If I
Killed My Mother
suffered from precocious indulgence, then Mommy suffers from maybe the opposite of
that. Having been a fan of Dolan’s work for a while now, you kind of get used
to his tricks. Mommy is ostensibly
about the torrid relationship between Diane (Anne Dorval) and her son, Steve
(Antoine-Olivier Pilon). Steve has ADHD, which makes him prone to violent
outbursts and manic rages. When Diane first picks him up from the institutional
boarding school, we learn that he has set the cafeteria on fire, burning one of
his classmates. Before we see him on screen, we understand Steve is really something. And so, the film treads on
for two hours, without too much surprise. There’s a plot reversal here and
there, but nothing serious or monumental, even concerning the relationship
between Steve and Diane, as far as the context of Dolan’s films go.

The
most striking aspect of his temper is the altercation that happens between he
and his mother early in the film. It’s unpleasant, maybe a little shocking to
anyone else. But when I watched it, I felt a pang of recognition. That kind of
event, where something small would escalate and erupt into something larger,
became commonplace at home. Steve walks back and forth in an effort to regain
control of his emotions. He punches, no, he pounds the wall as if to destroy it
and knock it down. I had flashbacks to doing similar things, memories of
arguments that flew out of control and my attempts to reign in my rage, whether
it be smacking myself in the head or heading back into my roo to throw
something at the wall so I didn’t hurt anyone. Lest I be completely cliché,
Steve forces the animal back into its cage, or he tries to. But he can’t hear
anything or see anything when his temper flares up. It’s like the world closing
in on him and he has to break free, even if it means hurting himself or a loved
one.

But
then something happens which puts all the previously comparably narratively
uninteresting or conventional events into perspective. There’s the impression
that this film carries itself on the existence of hope, particularly the idea
that love conquers all. But as the principal of the boarding school says,
“Loving people doesn’t save them.” Diane brings Steve to the institution, just
after a nice day at the beach, taking advantage of the bill that was mentioned
in a title card at the beginning of the film, denoting a fictional Canada where
one can dispose of their children into government institutions without due
process of the law. It’s a last resort kind of move, the very last resort. It
denotes the fact that the bond between the two is not enough to ignore Steve’s
behavioral issues.  It means that the
hope that existed in the film is now gone, which makes me worry about my own
story. What if all hope is lost?

It
was uncomfortable watching the film. It was unnerving seeing so much of life,
even in an extreme portrayal, up on screen. It was weird to see the
relationship with my mother from my mother’s side. But it was necessary. If I Killed My Mother was from the perspective
of the bratty child (only a tangential understanding of the film, mind you),
then Mommy is like the mirror image.
And that’s awkward for me. It’s like looking through my mother’s eyes at what
I’ve done, at how I’ve taken my mother for granted, how we’ve abused each other
and done terrible things one another. Granted, Steve is a far more extreme
character, but it’s easy to project myself onto him and see the similarities in
the relationships we have with our mothers. It’s almost an unconscious effort
to look at his actions, understand the previously strong bond between them, how
it has since eroded and see myself and my mother in that. In that way, the most
“troublesome” aspect of Mommy was
that it was so confrontational for me.

When
people ask me what the relationship I have with my mother is like, I tell them
to watch I Killed My Mother, in an
off handed snarky way. I add, “It’s like that, but less happy.” I say, “Our
relationship is tempestuous.” I’m not just saying that because the ferocity of
the relationship is something every teenager goes through, and I’m not saying
it because the film is easy to project oneself, myself, onto. I say it because
it is the closest thing to the relationship I have with my mother in any format
or medium or anything. Watching it doesn’t get easier with time, and I assume
the same will be for Mommy. Each
time, I see how precise the dialogue is, precise in the way that chunks of
conversations are things that my mother or I have said to one another,
verbatim. It’s as if Dolan followed me around during high school, recorded the
fights I had with my mother, and then used it for his film. He gets how my
mother seems to insist on surveying every classmate to compare how they act
versus how I act; he gets how the minutia which shouldn’t irk me does, and he
understands how inexplicable the change in the relationship is. But it isn’t
just the torrid nature of the relationship he gets right, it’s the complexities
of that dynamic as well. He understands the pain and the shame I feel about how
I act with my mother (I’ve lied about my mother being sick and not being able
to go to an event), he gets how ridiculous and trivial most of the fights are,
he understands the jealousy I feel when I see my best friend get along with his mother, simultaneously not wanting
to come out to my mother and yet fearing I will die inside if he doesn’t, and
he understands grasping for hope while simultaneously shooting that very hope
down preemptively. He is as bewildered as I am as to why the connection that
mother and son had become so toxic and corrosive. It was once joyous, amiable.
He understands that there is no one catalyst for it. It is inexplicable. And he
wishes it were different. I wish it were different. I don’t feel alone, at
least. But I Killed My Mother ends on
a positive note, with a trace of fideism. Mine doesn’t.

But
I should tell people who ask about us to watch both films. Because then it
won’t be just my side, the prodigal child, it’ll be both. There’ll be nuance
and complexity. In I Killed My Mother,
we hear these confessionals made on video about Hubert’s love for his mother,
or lack thereof. To be totally reductive, we listen to him whine. That’s not
quite right. There’s love there, and it ebbs and flows. It’s tempestuous. But
there’s a sympathy there, all the same, for both he and his mother, though for
Chantal it’s slightly underdeveloped. For now, it’s Hubert’s story. And then we
have Mommy, where Diane tells Kyla,
the neighbor, the details of her life, the kind of struggle it is to raise a
son like Steve. It doesn’t sound like she’s complaining. I can imagine that mix
of pride and embarrassment and the reticence my mother feels when talking about
me to other people. Diane has a warm maternal quality to her, but we understand
through being with her exactly the difficulty of the situation. Juxtaposing
these, side by side, neither is villain nor hero. Mother and son are equally
complicated, but in different ways. But I’m hesitant to love either film
because of how personal they are for me.

Because
loving the film would mean admitting and confronting the fact that I am, in a
fairly objective manner, not a great son. A bad son. I don’t take the
responsibility I should for my actions. I don’t treat my mother the way I
should. I remain petty. I feel like after seeing Mommy I should have called my mother to tell her I love her. I
didn’t. Because, more like Hubert and less like Steve, I’m scared. And more
like Steve and less like Hubert, I’m scared of who I am sometimes.

I
spent my summer living in a suitcase, basically. I lived with my best friend
for a couple of months and living with a couple of other friends because I was
not allowed at home. The day I came home from university for the summer, I got
into an altercation with my mother. She lunged at me. I struck her in the arm.
She grabbed my wrists and twisted my arm. She slapped me in the face. It
happened so quickly, all I can remember was the bubbling of my boiling blood,
the tracks the tears left on our faces, and the shame I felt immediately after
it had happened. As in Mommy, the
world closed in on us. The next day, she went to police to ask about how to
deal with the situation. It was mandatory, though, that the state press charges
against me. I was arrested that afternoon. That event was the culmination of
emotional and physical abuse on both of our ends after several years. It was
the volcanic eruption of tension, hate, fear, sorrow, loss, the desire for love
and validation.

There
are lines in the Mommy that kill me.
Steve looks at his mother as he says, “Maybe one day you won’t love me
anymore.” It’s something I’ve thought, too. Sometimes even think, present
tense. But, simultaneously, my detached distance from my mother causes her to
think the same. Diane, echoing my mother, says, “A mother doesn’t just wake up
one day not loving her son. If anything, she loves him more and more, as he
loves her less and less.” I don’t want that to happen. I don’t want that to be
the end of the story.

I
talked in my sessions with the case worker/therapist about the issues my mother
and I had with one another. He suggested that we meet for lunch every other
week. That barely worked, as each time it would somehow veer off into an
argument. But we worked on it, this fragmented dynamic, anyways. Though the
case itself is over with, expunged off my record, the situation is not. We’re
working on it. We’ll always be trying to work on it.

I
sometimes wonder what would happen if my mother watched these films. Would she
see the same things I saw? Would they hit as closely to home for her as they do
for me? I imagine they would. Even though it’s as if we’re strangers now, we
still know each other better and more deeply than nearly anyone else in our
lives. We both teared up during Maleficent
(of all things) because there’s that hint
of a functional relationship between a mother and their child. That’s what we
want. And, when our pride isn’t in the way, we do try. And for seconds,
minutes, hours, even for a couple of days, it feels like maybe it will be okay.
But that feeling, for both of us, lasts only too briefly.

It’s
easier to distance myself from the situation as much as possible, to
compartmentalize. But then I see films like I
Killed My Mother
and Mommy which
are urgent and important for me, because they make me confront those issues I
avoid. It is imperative that both exist, both in general and for me. That’s the
interesting power of art, how some pieces can feel so personal and speak to
you. Both films are intrinsically linked to me. Experiencing art and reacting
to it means that one is factoring in personal baggage, consciously or not. It
feels very strange to say it, but it’s like I
Killed My Mother
and Mommy are
one story; the story of me and my mother. And I don’t know how it will end.

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