TIFF 2014: Mommy

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There is a wonderful montage in the latter part of Xavier Dolan’s award-winning film Mommy that is both breathtakingly beautiful and devastating. Dolan uses this brief moment to perfectly encapsulate what it means to be a parent. Every hope and dream that comes with years of sacrifice captured on screen in vibrant colour. It is a rapturous few minutes that crushes us emotionally because we know it is fleeting.

As with most of the sequences in Mommy, every joyous high is followed by an equally stunning and heart-wrenching drop. The sight of young wayward Steve Després (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) standing triumphantly in the rain brings tears to our eyes as that is what we want to see for our own children. We refuse to contemplate the tough decisions that must be made when sharps turns in life lead them to stray from the path we desire most.

Mommy is a film that is all about these decisions. It is a riveting examination of the deep seeded guilt that is often tied to many of the choices parents must make. Set in a fictional version of Canada, where a controversial bill allows parents to give up custody of their children who are dealing with mental issues to the government, Diane ‘Die’ Després (Anne Dorval) just cannot catch of break. Immediately after getting in a car accident, she receives a call that her fifteen year-old son, Steve, is being kicked of the juvenile detention centre he has been living in.

Suffering from a severe case of ADHD, and prone to violent outburst, Steve has been more than a handful ever since Diane’s husband passed. Unwilling to let him rot in a government facility, Diane has no other choice but to let Steve stay with her. Though the pair love each other dearly, the combination of Steve’s hyperactive nature and Diane’s inability to hold down a job is a mixture just ripe for several volcanic eruptions. One particular incident grabs the attention of Kyla (Suzanne Clément), an introverted teacher who is on sabbatical.

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Slowly being pulled into the delicate mother-son dynamic, she eventually agrees to be Steve’s homeschool tutor. Kyla provides the grounding force that both Diane and Steve desperately need. What they do not realize though is the positive impact that they have on Kyla as well.

Making his fifth, and arguably most accomplished, film to date, Xavier Dolan once again proves why he is one of the most intriguing filmmakers working today. Presenting the film in a tight square frame, Dolan draws our attention to the characters. He ensures that we cannot look away when things get tense and uncomfortable. Not that one would dare turn away from a film this gorgeously constructed. One minute Dolan is displaying his visual talents by providing angelic grace to scenes where Steve is skateboarding in the middle of the street and recklessly spinning shopping carts in parking lots. The next he is showing off the complexities of his script in tense moments such as when Steve pushes one too many of Kyla’s buttons.

Trusting in his two favourite acting muses, regulars Anne Dorval and Suzanne Clément, Dolan is able to take us through an unexpected tidal wave of emotions. Though Dorval was the motherly focal point of Dolan’s debut film, I Killed My Mother, she brings another level of honesty to her work in this film. She carries the sexy swagger of a woman who is confident in her own skin, but the vulnerability of a mother who is struggling to be the best parent she can for her son. Dorval’s scenes with Pilon, who brings the right amount of energetic rage and youthful exuberance to the role of Steve, feature a nice mixture of intensity and heart.

Clément has the toughest role in the film playing a character that is quiet and haunted by the past. When Kayla does attempt to speak, her words are further hampered by a stutter. With these hindrances, Clément does a great job of utilizing her body language to convey her character’s numerous emotions.

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Dolan ensures that we do not merely observe his characters, but actually feel as if we are the fourth wheel of this emotional vehicle that is travelling down a rocky path. He achieves this through the wonderful soundtrack that will definitely give Guardians of the Galaxy’s Awesome Mix a run for its money. Using familiar songs, Dolan personalizes the experience for the audience. As a result, we attached our own experiences on to Mommy and the film gives each song new life and meaning for us.

Brilliantly executed, Mommy is a film that cuts us deep. Its honesty and gut-wrenching heart not only have us feeling for Diane’s plight, but that of our own parents. Dolan makes us reflect on the years of hardship and sacrifice parental figures endure in hopes of seeing a dream realized. As Diane astutely points out to Steve at one point, mothers grow to love their kids more and more while children grow to love their parents less and less.

Fortunately for Dolan, this observation does not apply to his films. Mommy is a film that we will comeback to over and over. Each time our love growing even further as we let this emotionally stunning, and visually pleasing, work wash over us. Mommy is a film that should not be missed; it is one of the year’s best films.