By Laurie Coker
Parenting is rarely easy. As is often noted, children do not come with user guides, so we do our best. Single parenting challenges even the strongest of hearts, and such is the case with a mother struggling to raise her unpredictable 15 year-old son, in director Xavier Dolan’s film Mommy. Emotionally exhausting, especially from a parent’s point of view, and at times, gut wrenchingly honest, 25-year-old Dolan’s film demonstrates the volatile nature of a family in crisis.
We aren’t meant to “enjoy” Mommy, like we might expect, but rather to experience familial dysfunction with all its ugliness and truth. Set somewhere in fictional French Canada, in Mommy we meet Diane (Anne Dorval), the widowed mother of Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), a teenager with severe emotional problems, a boy who tends to lash out at anyone he considers offensive, causing his school to expel him for good. Forced to become his fulltime caretaker and teacher, Diane battles her own issues and demons and looks for an income anywhere she can. A neighbor, Kyla (Suzanne Clement) takes an interest in helping Diane and Steve. The pair, both similarly broken, strikes up a friendship and work to create a life for Steve – to help him cope with his emotional disabilities and to function in a world that offers him naught.
Dolan’s cast is nothing short of amazing – engrossing and intense. With an over two hour run time, Mommy needed a cast with clear cohesiveness and emotional force and they have it. Dorval’s Diane grabs the heart as we experience her mental and physical battle with a son she so obviously loves. Steve can be both a pleasure and a curse and the curse is dangerous. Pilon plays him remarkably – raging like a mad man and then subdued and pleasant. It’s frightening and even more disturbing is the lack of help for Diane. I know little about the Canadian system, but Diane finds no assistance for her son and she begs for it. Kyla offers a sort of balance, even though she, too, struggles to find her own. Dolan doesn’t surround Kyla with as much darkness as the other two characters, and Clements touching performance lends sensitive stability in the very messy lives of Steve and Diane.
Mommy, rated R and in French with English subtitles, will not be a blockbuster hit, but Dolan deserves kudos for his work here. Dark, deeply detailed and deliberately infuriating, Mommy evokes distaste and anger – emotions aimed at Diane, Steve and the fictional system that fails them. I can’t say I liked the film (a content based opinion), but I appreciate the technique and the artistry. It’s a masterly crafted, impeccably acted film deserving of an A.