Mommy is very charming, sincere, and artfully directed in spite of its flaws.

by Josh Stillman

Mommy tells the story of a single mom, Diane, and her troubled son, Steve. Diane (Anne Dorval) is a train wreck. She smokes, swears like a drunken sailor, and can’t seem to hold down a job. Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon), her 16-year-old son, has some pretty severe behavioral issues, and we meet the two of them when Diane is retrieving Steve after a stint in a juvenile detention center.

They’re immediately at each other’s throats, literally and figuratively – not only do they ceaselessly spew vitriol at one another; Steve’s outbursts often involve physical violence. But in spite of their tempestuous relationship – and in some ways because of it – the two clearly love one another. The film is at its best when they’re directing their shared ire toward each other, or in some cases toward someone else – say, a rude cab driver. Their chemistry is palpable and their every interaction possesses a sense of chaotic yet endearing confrontation.

Written & Directed by
Xavier Dolan
Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Suzanne Clément
Release Date
23 January 2015
Josh’s Grade: B

A third and equally important relationship emerges as the story unfolds and we are introduced to Kyla (Suzanne Clément), the shy neighbor from across the street. Afflicted with a bad stutter and unemployed – she calls it a “sabbatical” – Kyla sees Steve and Diane as a raucous antidote to the tedium of her life at home. The three of them transform into a makeshift family, and the moment in which they first bond by dancing in the kitchen to a French-Canadian pop song belongs in the canon of such scenes.

All three of the leads are marvelous. Clément as Kyla is adorably sweet and reserved, the very picture of the girl next door, but possessing of an inner strength that bursts forth in a moment of crisis. Pilon, as Steve, is many things at once – crass and wounded, explosive and searching, needy and aloof. His character, due to the behavioral conditions from which he suffers, is a petulant nightmare, but Pilon renders him sympathetic if not always likeable. And Dorval, in the title role, is funny and charismatic even as she frequently falls to pieces. The only problem may be that she is too physically attractive for her part. Dorval is an elegant, beautiful woman – it’s sometimes difficult to believe her in a role that is the French-Canadian equivalent of po’ white trash.

Xavier Dolan, the film’s precocious young Québécois director, has worked with these actors before in his films; I Killed My Mother, Heartbeats, and Laurence Anyways. And because of their natural chemistry, Mommy excels when Dolan simply allows the characters to interact with each other. But Dolan is not a director who takes a hands-off approach to filmmaking. His earlier work is rife with artistic flourishes and a distinct visual sensibility, both of which are present here. Some of the shots and sequences in Mommy are gorgeously composed and immensely touching. Visuals aside, though, Dolan maintains an air of melodrama throughout, which often renders the proceedings histrionic and predictable. At times it feels like a well-acted soap opera. There are also two – two! – separate montages, both set to well-known radio hits (“White Flag” and “Wonderwall”). I’m perplexed that a filmmaker as consciously idiosyncratic as Dolan would stoop to such shopworn techniques. The only effective “transformation” montage in recent memory was in The Skeleton Twins, and that worked because it was deliberately ironic. In Mommy, they’re obvious and manipulative and lazy.

Mommy won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2014 (a distinction it shared with Godard’s Goodbye to Language) and was Canada’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards – there’s obviously some critical weight behind it. I don’t believe it’s quite that good, but it’s very charming, sincere, and artfully directed in spite of its flaws.