Mommy (Roadside Attractions, R)

mommy 75It’s better to accept Dolan’s film on its own terms and allow him to take you where he wants to go without trying to pigeonhole the experience he is delivering in the process.

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There’s nothing subtle about Mommy, Xavier Dolan’s Cannes Jury Prize-winning film about a Montreal problem-child and his mother. From the unusual choice of aspect ratio (1:1, i.e., a perfect square) to the operatic interpersonal dramas played out by the characters, this is a film that demands your attention and won’t let it go until the final credits roll almost 140 minutes later. It’s exhausting, exasperating, and frequently fascinating—an assault on the senses rather like that of being in company of one of the film’s two central characters, 15-year old Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon).

There’s a reason Dolan did not name his film Steve, however, because the young man’s performance is matched by his equally formidable single mother, Diane (Anne Dorval). As the film begins, Steve is returning home after being kicked out of his most recent placement in a group home. He has the body of a well-fed teenager combined with the self-control of a toddler and the shrewd manipulativeness of an adult conman, and there’s no way that combination can lead to anything good. Even his mother seems to be a bit afraid of him, although she herself is no novice in the arts of manipulation and pacification. There’s something vaguely unseemly about their relationship as well, and it soon becomes clear that Diane is not so much a victim of her son as a co-dependent, but perhaps a co-conspirator in his misbehavior.

Steve has a healthy rap sheet already (fortunately he’s white and lives in Montreal, so he hasn’t been shot by a cop or given a long prison sentence), and after the latest placement failure, Diane decides to try keeping him at home for a while. Into this volatile household comes the absolutely ordinary housewife next door, Kyla (Suzanne Clément). She has a stammer that makes it difficult for her to express herself, an on-the-nose symbolic characteristic (and a rare false note in an otherwise compelling imagined world) that clearly differentiates her from Steve and Diane. The result is a codependency triangle—Diane wants a friend, Steve’s sex hormones are bursting, and Kyla wants something more than her conventional marriage is giving her.

It’s hard to describe the plot of Mommy without making it sound like a run-of-the-mill social problem drama about a misfit kid and an unhealthy mother-son relationship, but it’s pretty much the opposite of that and really can’t be easily categorized. If you want to get all psychoanalytic about it, you could say that Steve is the id and Diane the superego, and it’s not at all clear which is going to win the upper hand. But really, it’s better to accept Dolan’s film on its own terms and allow him to take you where he wants to go without trying to pigeonhole the experience he is delivering in the process.

There’s no lack of violence in Mommy and it’s frequently disturbing, not so much because of what happens as because of the way Dolan insists that you experience it viscerally. Action-adventure films can kill dozens with less emotional impact than one of Steve’s tantrums, and even the most dedicated art house viewer may feel worn down long before this film is over. Still, you can’t fail but admire Dolan’s willingness to go all-in, a characteristic shared by the fine performances of the two principals, Pilon in particular. Mommy doesn’t aim to give you just another night at the cinema, but it will supply a memorable evening that will not soon be forgotten. | Sarah Boslaugh

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