Xavier Dolan is the future of cinema. At least, we should hope he is. There may come a day when the wunderkind Quebecois director makes the kind of safe, competent movie that cleans up at the Oscars and turns him a major star. But when he does, some will mourn the passing of his early period, which produced beautifully indulgent gems like Mommy, a personal and joyous work of cinema that puts most of this year’s Oscar nominees to absolute shame.
Equally rewarding and emotionally devastating, Mommy is a modern story of maternal determination. Anne Dorval plays Diane, a 40-something widow whose troubled son Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon) gets expelled from a school for delinquents after setting fire to the cafeteria. Diane brings Steven home, and with the help of a neighbor (Suzanne Clément), a former teacher who’s taking a sabbatical after some unidentified trauma, sets out to rehabilitate him.
It’s a tall task. Steve suffers from severe ADHD, and losing his father—who died just weeks after being diagnosed with cancer—has not helped. Steve drinks, smokes, and throws violent fits, but Diane is only marginally more mature, despite her maternal instinct. Cursing at each other in front of a dinner guest, they resemble a bickering married couple more than a mother and son. Still, Dolan finds authenticity in an Oedipal relationship more typically used as fodder for shallow cinematic psychoanalysis or, worse, a punch-line. “Loving people doesn’t save them,” a counselor says in an early scene, but Diane sets out to prove her wrong.
An early scene in the duo’s apartment highlights their dysfunction. Steve gives Diane a gold necklace that reads “Mommy,” an item he clearly shoplifted. She refuses it, and he snaps; he chases her around the house like a madman, only to weep apologetically when he runs out of energy. For the rest of the film, she wears the necklace, which starts to feel less like a thoughtful gift and more like a brand.
On paper, Mommy may sound like a difficult movie, and in some ways, it is. The characters are not always fun to be around, but they are always compelling. Pilon is a powerful adolescent presence, capturing both the unbridled energy of a child and an awareness of the power of his own charisma, especially on the two troubled women trying to care for him. Dorval has the tougher haul, grounding the movie with practical concerns of her family’s survival while depicting a character who’s driven by grief but lacks the emotional space to express it.
While the actors’ performances are stellar, Dolan’s affection for the characters carries the day. Amid all the domestic strife, he affords Diane and Steve a few moments of joyful release, depicted with a dazzling array of formal tricks. Dolan’s bold and ambitious style is that of a child who’s just discovered a treasure chest full of tools. Cynics may consider Mommy indulgent or immature, but it’s also the stuff of which great dreams are made.
Mommy opens Jan. 30 at Bethesda Row Cinema.