Mommy is the Raging Bull of dysfunctional-family dramas, a story of the combative relationship between a mother and her son filled with delirious swells of effusive love and sudden plummets into madness and hate. Writer-director Xavier Dolan refuses to allow the viewer any emotional distance or escape from the back-and-forth between the middle-aged widow Diane (Anne Dorval) and her hyperactive, bipolar son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon). The movie is a furious, in-your-face whirlwind of emotions, but it’s never tiresome or bellicose, and its raucous, messy energy is invigorating. The picture draws you in instead of pushing you away, even when situations become so tense or awkward that in real life, you’d look for a way to slink out of the room unnoticed.
Dolan, who is only 25 (this is his fifth film), doesn’t make things easy for himself, shooting Mommy in an unusual aspect ratio that is tall and narrow, like an image on your cellphone or the monolith from 2001. The stunt is initially distracting but quickly becomes an important fabric of the film’s snowballing sense of claustrophobia – damaged people clinging to each other as the world collapses around them.
The movie opens as Steve is discharged from a mental institution for starting a fire that injured another patient. Diane, who has lost her job and is cleaning toilets for a living, relies on the help of the neighbor across the street, a teacher named Kyla (Suzanne Clement), to home-school Steve during the day. Kyla, a shy woman with a stutter who is curiously detached from her husband, restores a fragile sense of normalcy to the household, filling in the gap left by Steve’s late father. The three become a makeshift family, providing Steve with just enough stability to allow him to feel happiness (in one scene, he leads the two women into an impromptu house-party dance session to Celine Dion’s On Ne Change Pas, and the camera stays on them, allowing you to share their moment of spontaneous, goofy bliss).
But Steve’s increasingly volatile state of mind and shaky grasp on sanity keep getting in the way of a happy ending. Mommy is, in a way, a counterpoint to Dolan’s first film, I Killed My Mother, which also starred Dorval, then playing the oblivious, uptight mama of a gay son. This time, Dolan takes a more compassionate approach to the maternal character, hinting at Dorval’s disappointment of how her life turned out (she was clearly a hellion as a teenager); she sees in her son her own neuroses and hang-ups and rebellious behavior magnified to a heartbreakingly large dimension. She’s as much of a handful as Steve is, except she’s not mentally unstable. Pilon, a handsome young man who could pass for Macaulay Culkin’s older cousin (Dolan even throws in a fun, passing reference to Home Alone), radiates vulnerability and menace in equal measure. Here is a person yearning to be loved but prone to self-destructive behavior that makes it difficult for anyone to get truly close to him.
Still, Diane is going to try. Mommy is as much about a mother’s unconditional love as it is about a son’s attempt to please the most important person in his life, unaware of the barriers that, through no fault of his own, make his mission practically impossible. The movie is raw and boisterous and packed with life, ranging from scenes of elevating, transporting joy to instances of heartrending sadness. Considering his age, Dolan already has an impressively astute eye for the various ways in which people express their affection for each other — not every explosion of anger and rage is an expression of hatred — and he has an appreciation, too, for the tragic irony of the tricks fate can play. You don’t walk away from Mommy unscarred or untouched: This is a movie you live and feel as much as you watch, and the closing shot sends you out of the theater soaring with a specific, peculiar feeling that, like the rest of this film, defies description.
Cast: Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Suzanne Clement, Patrick Huard.
Writer-director: Xavier Dolan.
A Roadside Attractions release. Running time: 139 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, adult themes. In French with English subtitles. In Miami-Dade: Gables Art Cinema, Miami Beach Cinematheque; in Broward: Gateway.