We remember watching a directors’ roundtable one day and the question was asked of the assembled filmmakers “what is the hardest part of directing?” They all agreed that the hardest thing was to create a sense of life: inside a frame where everything included therein is a choice, the hardest thing is to make it feel part of a wider world, unmanufactured, organic, alive. They should maybe just hang around mopping up the spillover from “Mommy,” the tremendous new film from Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan, because, by some distance his best film, it is also one of the most vibrant, intoxicating, illuminating films of this or any Cannes, and it’s a little like we can still feel it thrumming through our veins.
Centered on an incredible performance from Ann Dorval, with whom Dolan reunites after “Laurence Anyways” and a no less revelatory one from Antoine Olivier Pilon as her son, the film is brimming with the kind of directorial tics and tricks that would in most other contexts be loathsome, but practically every single one of them works here. From the boxlike, 1:1 aspect ratio (which changes at certain key junctures, rather like Dolan did with his last film “Tom at the Farm,” but for a completely different effect) that makes close ups of faces look like beautifully composed passport photos, to the engineered, artificial and awesome use of slo mo and montage, to the soundtrack, which is an extraordinary example of making audience members’ hearts sing through the careful application of wuss rock and MOR Mom music, time and again we were left a little winded at the sheer degree of (well-earned) directorial confidence on display.
There are a couple of things that don’t quite land, like the unnecessarily overwritten, almost sci-fi-ish prologue which tells us that we’re in a “fictional Canada” in the year 2015 when a law has been signed into effect that means a parent can easily consign any child to an institution, which somewhat leadenly introduces the gun in the first act that has to go off in the third. And the film does feel slightly overlong at 140 minutes, losing a little momentum toward the end when it starts to feel like Dolan simply can’t bear to leave the characters, even though the story is done. To be honest, he’s got a point; characters this good, this flinty and sparky and full of all the good and bad energies of the universe, should live forever.
Diane, or “Die” as she’s known (Dorval) is the mother of troubled 14-year-old Steve (Pilon), who at the beginning of the film is being discharged from a detention centre because he set fire to it, scarring another child badly in the process. From the first second of meeting Die, we’re a little in love with her, her brazen fishwife language, her aggressive, no-bullshit manner, her ferocious anger and even more ferocious love. But it’s her relationship with her son that is the spine of the film; he is as capable of acts of joyous mischief and even grace as he is of acts of extreme violence and cruelty, often alternating one with the other in a frighteningly unpredictable, uncontrollable pattern. Into this loud, argumentative, maybe even life-threateningly torrid relationship comes Kyra (Suzanne Clement, a vet of both “Laurence Anyways” and “I Killed My Mother“), the next-door neighbor who, having recently developed a stutter due to some sort of psychological issues, is as quiet and hesitant as Die and Steve are brash and voluble. After a fantastic reveal of her own fangs in one memorable scene, Kyra becomes a stabilizing influence on Steve, a conspiratorial best friend to Die, and is herself remade by her exposure to their unconventional lives.
There are ups and downs and soapish highs and lows, but what stops this from ever becoming a telenovela is the riveting wonder of the performances and the sheer brio of the filmmaking. There are moments of intense humor, including one of the most infectiously laugh-along scenes of drunken female bonding that we’ve ever seen and right down to tiny details like Steve doing the Macauley Culkin “Home Alone” face when looking in the bathroom mirror. And there are moments of utter desolation, like the slow realization of a terrible truth that dawns on Steve at the film’s end in unflinching closeup—everything happening in Pilon’s extraordinary blue eyes.
And then there’s that soundtrack. If you’d have told us yesterday that we were ever going to have this many feels for a film that uses Oasis‘ “Wonderwall” over a “we’re getting our lives back together” montage we’d have consigned you to a Canadian mental institution ourselves. But from Dido‘s “White Flag” to Andrea Boccelli, to what we think is a Celine Dion French-language song to Eiffel goddamn 65, the hits we hate just never stopped coming and never stopping being used to revelatory effect. In fact, Counting Crows‘ “Colorblind” playing over a scene of Steve on his longboard clearly listening to rap actually made us laugh aloud, while an early scene of Steve returning from the supermarket, riding the shopping trolley and clearly on one of his manic highs while the music swells, the suburban sky so blue behind him and him so bursting with youth, well, that was the point at which we started to fall hard for “Mommy,” and while the end trespassed on our indulgence a tiny bit, we otherwise never really stopped.
Undoubtedly a major contender for the Palme d’Or (it screened in the same slot as last year’s winner, conspiracy fans), and undoubtedly one of our top films of the festival, nothing in Dolan’s previous work, which we have liked to varying degrees, really warned us that he was going to so comprehensively slay us with a story this warm, human and humane. Subtle it is not, (there are suicide attempts and straitjackets and glassings and excruciating karaoke) but subtlety can suck it when the result is this vibrant and vital. And does this mean we can finally retire the “enfant terrible” sobriquet from Dolan’s bio? He may be but a whippersnapper, but no one who has as much compassion for his characters as Dolan clearly does for his three central creations here, whom he by turns judges and condemns and then continually, everlastingly forgives, can ever again be termed terrible. [A]