Xavier Dolan’s “I Killed My Mother” marks the emergence of an exciting new filmmaking talent. The Montreal actor, a mere 20 years old, displays a startlingly mature perspective on human behavior in his triple threat position as writer-director-star. He plays Hubert, a gay teen constantly at odds with his uptight single mother (Ann Dorval). Although described as a coming out story since its popular debut at the Cannes Film Festival in May (where it won several awards), Hubert’s sexuality forms only one part of the equation. His maternal disdain seems alternately trivial and profound, but always real.
The title itself becomes a narrative device, toying with viewer expectations and suggesting that it could turn to matricidal horror at any moment. Fortunately, “Mother” has more legitimate concerns to focus on. Hubert’s heated conversations with his well-intentioned mom contrasts with the relative tranquility he brings to his relationships with other people, including his easy-going boyfriend, Antonin (Francois Arnaud), whose own mother’s progressive, nonchalant attitude about her son’s dating life drives Hubert to develop further disdain for his situation at home. He also forms a bond with his sympathetic schoolteacher (Suzanne Clement), the only person capable of helping him understand the value of unconditional family love. Yet Dolan lets the character waver back and forth on that one. At no point in the movie does he outright reject his mother, but he continually attempts to refine his understanding of her importance to him. The dialogue glides through this constant prevarication. “I love her, but it’s not the love of a son,” he says at one point in a recorded video journal. “It’s a paradox, having a mother you’re incapable of loving and incapable of not loving.”
But Dolan’s script doesn’t merely rely on Hubert’s uncertain thought process. Subtle visual touches introduce a sense of emotional progression that elevates the movie to interpersonal lyricism. Hubert writes brooding, downbeat poetry that appears on the screen as if materializing out the character’s mind. Despite his spotty creative ambitions, Hubert clearly possesses an active imagination. Dolan occasionally cuts to evocative nondiegetic images, such as his mother dressed as a nun crying tears of blood, that appear to represent Hubert’s understanding of his insular world. Although less dreary, the filmmaker borrows a page from Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” in scenes where he frames his characters from behind and slows down the action, making it seem as though their minds stay busy even as they go about their mundane routines.
The gradual progress of “Mother,” on the levels of both plot and theme, allow it to be funny in a true-to-life way without fully entering into comedic territory. The stuff that makes us laugh also gives us pause. One night, Hubert takes speed and confesses his personal turmoil to his abruptly sympathetic mother. In a later scene, she unloads on the principal of his private school with a vulgar rant that’s both hilarious and brutally honest, nearly besting the powerful speech delivered by Mo’Nique in Lee Daniels’s forthcoming “Precious.” Dolan’s patient storytelling demonstrates an understanding of the lasting impact a narrative can have when it revolves around universally relatable concepts. “Mother” is about growing up while coming to terms with one’s roots, making it a perfect companion piece to Azazel Jacobs’s “Momma’s Man,” and it could also adopt that title.