This movie is as challenging as it is rewarding. Undoubtedly difficult to sit through, I found myself really turned off by the characters and I had to coach myself a little in order to keep going. Just last week I was defending a movie to Sean and I found myself saying that a movie doesn’t have to have likeable characters or a happy ending in order for it to be ‘good.’ I believe this to be true, but I’d forgotten how tedious a film can be if you have no one to root for.
And I don’t mean to call this movie tedious by any means (although I’d say it’s overlong) because once I forgave the characters for being nasty human beings, I could relax into the theme of the movie, which never for a moment claimed otherwise.
First off, director Xavier Dolan wants you to know that the film’s set in an alternate Canada where a new law has just been passed enabling people to wave their parental rights and surrender “problem children” to the government at any time, no questions asked. So keep that in mind. Diane is a single (widowed) mother with a teenaged son named Steve who’s prone to hyperactivity and violent outbursts. He’s been institutionalized since his father died but having recently maimed a kid in a fire he set, he’s being kicked out and mommy dearest must bring him home. This kid’s behaviour is immediately repulsive, but our introduction to his mother isn’t much better and right off the bat it’s clear there’s a strong case of apple-doesn’t-fall-far-from-the-treeism at work. Home school him? That’s a joke. Try just not getting choked out by him. His mother, despite her faults, is trying hard to keep him away from the system, and it’s clear that she does love him. The surprise of this movie is that she doesn’t just chuck him at the nearest hospital. She tries. And the trying is painful to watch because we see how futile and unending it will be. And then a mysterious neighbour named Kyla lends a hand, but there aren’t enough hands in the world to save this kid from his attachment disorder.
Mommy has a very distinct style, the director choosing to go with an almost unheard of 1:1 aspect ratio, which means we actually view the movie as a perfect square. Dolan chose this deliberately to highlight the emotions of each scene, and he reinforces this again with his tight shots, up close and personal, intimate certainly, sometimes claustrophobic. When Steve is at his most inappropriate, your skin crawls because you, like the characters, cannot escape. There is little breathing room – literally, figuratively – what a thing to be able to communicate through film! Steve is a trial, and even at 2 hours, the burden feels almost unbearable at times, and you begin to walk in his mother’s shoes. Mommy isn’t much for the bigger picture, but it’s an immersive experience that pushes your limits, makes you wish for bad things, and then leaves you feeling slightly ashamed for having wished them: quite a feat for a little Canadian film.
If you can’t cope with a movie with unlikeable leads, then this one’s not for you. It’s tough even if you think you can. Steve pushes against boundaries and is continually in a state of having gone too far. He’s alive on screen, visceral and so real he’s scary, scary because you know he exists, and that he’s somebody’s son. The kid who plays him must be really well-cast because I loathed him, loathed his face, loathed every grimace he would make. Do you see how it got to me? This movie demands a lot of its viewers, not just in terms of bearing witness, but also in looking away when the rest of the story isn’t really fleshed out. Kyla, for example, appears on scene with a disabling stutter that’s a fresh result from some unnamed trauma, but we never get to know what it is. She exists to help mother and son and her back story is just a tantalizing black hole. But Diane, on the other hand, is given such a shockingly non-judgemental treatment that you won’t believe it can originate from a 25-year-old director. It’s a compassionate and stark look at caretaking, and the breaking point of the maternal bond.
I’m not sure if you can really enjoy a movie like this, at least not int he way you might enjoy a popcorn movie with a talking racoon. This is a movie that requires digestion, possibly even mastication, but I do believe it will leave you satisfied.