Saturday, November 15, 2014

AFI Fest 2014: "Mommy"

Director: Xavier Dolan
Runtime: 139 minutes

After taking a leap forward with this year's Tom at the Farm, Xavier Dolan has moved neither forwards nor backwards with his latest film. Instead, Mommy finds Dolan taking a step sideways. The 25 year-old Quebecois enfant terrible's fifth film is manic, compelling, overbearing, and filled with flashes of brilliance. In other words, it's everything we've come to expect from a Xavier Dolan film. 

Set in a ficitional, near-future Canada, Mommy opens with an explanation of a new law that allows parents to turn their children over to the state without going through the court system. It's an entirely unncessary intro, made more apparent by the absence of any other changes in Canadian life. Remove the opening title cards, and Mommy would still make sense and succeed or fail in the same ways.

Mommy marks Dolan's return to the emotional battleground that exists between mothers and their teenaged sons. At the start of the film, Die (Anne Dorval) picks up her son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) from a juvenile psych ward. Steve is, to put it lightly, a problem child. So even though Die cares for her son, she must contend with her own financial woes and Steve's volatile temper. The only saving grace of the new set up is Kyla (Suzanne Clement), the shy, stuttering teacher from across the street. After an uncomfortable introduction to the family, Kyla befriends the pair and agrees to homeschool Steve. The exposure to Die and Steve's loud, white trash glory even brings Kyla out of her shell.

Special emphasis should be placed on 'loud,' as the word best characterizes just about every facet of the work in front of and behind the camera. Shot in a cramped 1:1 aspect ratio, Dolan and cinematographer Andre Turpin put the viewer in uncomfortably close proximity to the volcanic displays of just about every human emotion under the sun. It's energizing and exhausting all at once. Dolan has never been one to bury his films in subtlety, but with Mommy he attacks his material with a absolutely florid tone. 

To their credit, the actors are all perfectly in sync with the nature of the execution. Dorval and Clement have both worked with Dolan before, although this time they're playing roles that are quite different from their previous collaborations. For Dorval, this means transforming into a larger-than-life, brusque woman. After only a few minutes with Die, it's easy to see where Steve got his wild side from. Clement, meanwhile, goes in the opposite direction, retreating into her role as the psychologically delicate Kyla. Both women are uniformly excellent, and create authentic, complex characters amid all of the swearing and shouting. Pilon, a newcomer to the Dolan-verse, acquits himself nicely, and never goes out of his way to present Steve as a likable kid. Steve can be a bit of a terror, and Pilon takes the role by the horns without losing the character's humanity (that said, he's awfully punchable).

The unconventional family dynamic at the center of Mommy is easily the strongest aspect of Dolan's script. Watching these three intense personalities bounce off of each other keeps the film afloat for its 140 minute run time. With so much energy being put out by the cast, the film doesn't even feel terribly indulgent the way that some of Dolan's shorter offerings did. Beneath all of the shouting, Mommy is ultimately about Die being pushed towards a fateful decision that forces the single mom to face a shattering do-or-die dilemma. As a depiction of the complex layers of a mother's love, the film is never less than superb. The message may lack nuance, but it's not without legitimate emotional weight.

Yet, as is typical of Dolan's everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach, not all of the storytelling compents work as well. Dolan establishes the goals of his main characters, but then gets lost in his own story. Kyla's tutoring sessions with Steve, which could have been the crux of the story, are glossed over in montages. Die's string of odd jobs are given the same treatment. Dolan's hyperactive directing keeps the story moving along, but at times Mommy moves through certain plots recklessly. It's too freeform for its own good, and undercuts the tension in Die and Steve's situation.

The sheer intensity of the experience is eventually enough to help Mommy get by, although at times just by a hair's breadth. There's a messiness to the storytelling that recalls Dolan's transgender opus Laurence Anyways, for better and for worse. Though less visually opulent, Mommy can slip from moments of dramatic wonder to full throttle shrieking. Yet as out of control as the film becomes at times, Dolan's conclusion still resonates. Difficult choices are part of any loving relationship, and the climactic decision here, preceded by a wonderful dream sequence, is wrenching stuff. As unlikable as Dolan's characters can be, he still manages to unearth their dignity. It's what holds his films together through their considerable highs and lows, and what keeps audiences and critics on edge to see what he does next. 

Grade: B

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