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‘Mommy’: Draining Psychodrama

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REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For Digital First Media

Are you currently thinking about having children? Are you assuming that they’ll be adorable little cherubs? If you see “Mommy,” it may prompt you to reconsider the allure of parenthood.

An early onscreen Chyron suggests a future world in which the Canadian government has passed controversial legislation. It empowers parents to turn over any unruly child to state care.    A parent’s decision can be implemented without any administrative fanfare and is not subject to judicial review.

As “Mommy” opens, we are introduced to the titular mother, Diane (Anne Dorval), as the car that she is driving is smashed in a collision. It doesn’t take long to learn how emotionally volatile she is.  As Diane emerges from her demolished car, she is yelling and cursing excitedly at the other motorist.  In addition to introducing this foul-mouthed, working class, middle-aged mom, the scene is literal example of the litany of setbacks this beleaguered widow must endure. It also served metaphorically as a portent of the many psychological collisions in her life.

As it turns out, Diane had been en route to pick up her fifteen-year old son, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), from a residential care center for juveniles. Steve has just started a fire, which severely burned one of his peers. As a consequence, he is being discharged from the facility.

Diane pleads with the center’s director (Michèle Lituacto) give her son one more chance, contending that she simply can’t manage him at home. When the administrator suggests that perhaps Diane needs to have Steve committed to a criminal detention center, she recoils with horror. Diane insists that she would never do such a thing to her son.

As we learn, Steve suffers from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. He is basically a sweet kid, who exhibits a genuinely protective attitude towards his mother.  However, since Steve’s father died three years ago, he has become subject to wild moods swings. Now, Steve has no filter for his impulses and persistently  pitches impromptu temper tantrums without any apparent provocation.

In one harrowing early scene, Steve abruptly goes from expressing affection for his mother to choking her. To escape Steve’s death grip, the desperate Diane is forced to bash a wall-hanging over his head. Enraged, Steve chases after her menacingly to retaliate. Things escalate from there.  They culminate with Diane toppling over a bookcase, which crashes onto Steve, severely gashing his leg.

A new woman, Kyla (Suzanne Clément), moves in across the street along with her chilly, computer programmer  husband and daughter. Kyla had been a teacher, but has apparently suffered a nervous breakdown. It left her with a severe stammer. She is drawn into the volatile, quasi-incestuous relationship between Diane and Steve, serving as a buffer between them.

This is the fifth film from Quebecois enfant terrib,  Xavier Dolan. Although he is only 25, Dolan has already become the darling of the international festival scene. He has debuted four films at Cannes and another one at the Venice Film Festival.   At this year’s  Cannes, “Mommy” shared the Jury Prize in the main competition with Jean-Luc Goddard’s latest, “Goodbye to Language.” “Mommy” has the additional distinction of being chosen as Canada’s submission to this year’s Academy Awards’ foreign film category.

With “Mommy,” Dolan continues to show considerable talent as a filmmaker. Witness a nightclub karaoke scene, in which skillfully manipulated camerawork  captures Steve’s perspective of the hostile, jeering audience as he performs Andrea Bocelli’s “Vivo per lei.” Later, the felicitous depiction of a wedding proves extremely imaginative.

However, some of Dolan’s creative decisions prove gratuitously provocative. For instance, during much of the film, he and cinematographer,   Andre Turpin, adopt a 1 to 1 aspect ratio. This provides a box-like image. Dolan insisted that this atypical aspect ratio was employed to amplify the emotions of the film’s characters. Whatever his intentions, the effect is disconcerting, especially when the film vacillates between different aspect ratios.

“Mommy” is an engaging, well-acted film, which features a trio of strong performances. However, this bleak psychodrama is profoundly draining and definitely not for the faint of heart.

***   R (for language throughout, sexual references and some violence) 139 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lererprose@gmail.com.

 

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