Anne Dorval does a tour de force performance in Xavier Dolan's Mommy as the dedicated single mother to a son with what is termed "ADHD." The boy Steve (played memorably by Antoine Olivier Pilon) stutters timidly and endearingly, and then suddenly he furiously attacks, breaking everything around him. In one scene, he nearly strangles his mother. The mother is a vivacious, talkative powerhouse, whose thickly accented Quebecois drawl had to be subtitled even for French people to understand. She oozes life and sensuousness -- and love for her son. Throughout, she struggles valiantly to keep him with her at home, despite all the havoc he wreaks -- and could wreak.
What makes the film riveting is the exuberance of these performances. At one point, a third character, a stuttering neighbor played by Suzanne Clement, joins the frenetic household, apparently not fulfilled in her own family life across the street. The three make sumptuous meals together on the patio; they laugh, dance, talk, in a vivacious ensemble act, accepting that ever so often the boy will freak out and attack, pushing them to the ground and threatening sexual violence. These scenes are edgy with fear and danger -- and love.
Director Xavier Dolan clearly adores his characters, as much as he adores his own real mother, whom he discusses at length in the press notes of the film. His film is a compassionate testimony to the unconventional "misfit" family, and the joy that love can bring, no matter what the situation. We become privy to this intimate family, captivated by their human spirit. As Dolan put it, he chose to film Mommy in 1:1 ratio because, this square ratio "provided that intimacy, that humane aspect." He noted: "My characters are flawed, real. They are not tie-wearing characters. They spit and curse."
It is this intimate humane gaze -- and fresh vivacity -- that probably earned the film the Jury Prize at Cannes (a prize it shared with Jean-Luc Godard's Goodbye to Language).
For the film has serious faults as well: faults not often noted, it seems, out of respect (or indulgence) for the young age of the director who is just 25. An overkill quality crops up sporadically, just enough to make this film, which is otherwise breathtaking, seem at times the work of an amateur. The thrilling rock music that plays in the joyful scenes, emphasizing the life force of both mother and son, despite their travail, works fantastically in harmony with the film's message. But the sentimental soundtrack that accompanies the more tender moments of the film is overkill: putting in question the spectator's perceptual ability to experience feelings without being instructed to by chords. Similarly, the camera work is fantastic when it showcases the mother's strong-spirited monologues. But ever so often, Dolan films a reaction shot of the neighbor's face, watching the loving mother and son rapport, smiling with admiration, to make sure we get the point. We don't need this stand-in to feel this admiration ourselves.
Along the same lines, one climatic scene, in a karaoke bar, is so over-played that it made me cringe. The boy is jeered at for his singing, which is sure to trigger one of his ferocious attacks. The scene, reminiscent of Carrie, soaked with pig blood, about to see red, seems staged; the jeering jerks, with their evil faces flashing in the bar light, are caricatures of thugs.
But the most conspicuous fault: the ending. The last half hour is sloppily crafted: the scenes go up and down like a roller coaster, seemingly for climatic effect, but the result verges on television melodrama. Mommy seems to never end. The last shot, of a window leading to the outside, was precisely what I was longing for for the duration of that half-hour, as I was trapped in my seat.
If only Mommy had been edited down from its 2 and ½ hours, and more strictly controlled, this showcase of a mother's love would have been magnificent.
I asked Xavier Dolan why he did not bring his film to a more decisive end earlier.
He faced me and retorted with punch:
"Where would you have ended it? Let's look at the scenes in that ending half hour. Do you want to end it when the mother is crying? Do we end it on a woman who bawls? No, that does not go with the meaning of the film. Do you want to end it when Steve is telling his mother he loves her? No, that is his ending. Do you want to end it full of hope? No. So where would you have ended it?"
"I have no suggestions on where to end it," I said. "I just want to know why you ended it where you do: in the hospital. I did not understand the meaning of your last shot, of Steve running down the corridor, in relation to the film as a whole. I mean, the title is Mommy, and she drops out of the picture."
"So what that the title is Mommy! The title does not determine the meaning."
"So what is the meaning?"
"Steve is unleashing himself from these guards' grasp, from the constraints of his jacket, out of the jacket of the social system forced on him; out of the endless misfortunes. He starts running, with that smile -- it is a way to say that there is a happy ending after all. Those characters in my movie are doomed; Steve might be better off dead than alive. But we know he is going to punch that glass! He will keep going."
Dolan stood up with feisty passion.
Antoine Olivier Pilon, the actor who plays Steve, took a seat.
Pilon offered an alternative view.
"No," the young actor shyly stated. "There is no hope at the end. My character lives only for his mother. His love for her is everything for him. There is no future for him. Without his mother, my character is finished."