Take Xavier Dolan seriously. His Cannes sensation (and Oscar-snubbed) “Mommy” affirms that the prodigal filmmaker behind succès d’estime “I Killed My Mother” and the epic “Laurence Anyways” has, at 25, finally grown up. In “Mommy,” Dolan wisely restrains his bravado and has never been more at home than with these three richly made characters: a scrappy and outrageously brave single mom, her smart yet deeply troubled teen with blond hair and behavioral problems, and the timid housewife with a speech impediment and secrets next door.
French-Canadian powerhouse Anne Dorval, in a wickedly unhinged performance that already feels iconic, is Diane, the widowed mother of rage-addled Steve (fresh-faced youngster Antoine Olivier Pilon), a teenager too out of control for even the steeliest boarding school. Their unbalanced, smothering relationship seems on the verge of total chaos until a diffident neighbor (Dolan pal Suzanne Clement, heartbreaking) drifts into their orbit. They all bring dark pasts to the table, but together form some kind of cracked, fucked-up, deeply damaged and utterly magical little family.
Dolan, pulling back on the plot pedal, spends most of the film lingering in and around their mesmerizing dynamic. The chemistry between these three actors is simply seismic, and much of “Mommy” feels like a gloriously insane car wreck you can’t take your eyes off. This is an emotional workout with characters you simply don’t want to let go of, a trio of complex, beaten-down souls that live and breathe, however hyperbolically, as people in the real world. While the film clocks in at almost two-and-a-half hours, but it could comfortably sustain another hour as far as this writer is concerned. Part of the film’s suffocating power lies in Dolan’s refreshingly unpretentious 1:1 aspect ratio, which frames the actors in intimate, up-close, and maybe even too-close, portraits.
While his 2012 sprawling queer romance “Laurence Anyways” had its fleet of film crit champions at Cannes, where four of the workhorse director’s five films have premiered, Dolan at last earned Competition status on the Croisette in May 2014, sharing the Grand Jury Prize with “Goodbye to Language” director Jean-Luc Godard—between them lies a 59 year age gap, which 2014 Cannes Jury president Jane Campion was well aware of in according this shared honor.
Dolan’s 2013 film maudit psychodrama “Tom at the Farm,” in which he also stars as a blond-headed libertine under the spell of his dead boyfriend’s sexily primitive older brother, skipped Cannes for Venice, hasn’t sold stateside, for reasons unknown. His impeccably pretty, first two films “I Killed My Mother” and “Heartbeats” postured a bold new talent in terms of pure visual derring-do, but they strained for material cleverness over actual psychological substance.
But in “Mommy,” Dolan is clearly at the height of his powers behind the camera rather than in front of it. He draws astounding portrayals from his cast. And there will be many more to come from this ambitious young talent who has taken a page from the book of RW Fassbinder in his tireless ambition.