MommyReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 01/30/15 16:46:27
One of the professional banes of the business of being a film critic is that because of deadline crunches, there is often very little time to contemplate a particular film in any great detail before committing an opinion to print for public consumption. Granted, in many cases, this extra contemplation is not necessarily required--I doubt that extensive marination on the subjects of "The Boy Next Door" or "Mortdecai" would have altered my views on them in the slightest--but with some of the more serious-minded offerings, having more time to mull upon them can sometimes lead to conclusions that I might not have arrived at otherwise. Case in point--"Mommy," the highly touted fifth feature film from French-Canadian enfant terrible Xavier Dolan (who, it should be noted, is still only 25 years old). After watching the film a couple of weeks ago, my immediate reaction was mixed but more or less leaning towards the positive--I had a few serious issues with it and did not love it nearly as much as its most vociferous supporters but I did not feel the level of intense dislike shared by its detractors either. However, in the days between seeing it and sitting down to write these words, I have been thinking about it a lot and each time I do, my enthusiasm for it wanes further and further. Therefore, I had better write this review in a hurry before my current dislike for it evolves further into outright hostility.
The film opens with a series of title cards placing the story in the very near-future in the wake of the adoption of a new Canadian law allowing parents to go around the courts and instantly institutionalize their troubled children when they become too problematic to deal with in any way. After supplying viewers with that bit of surely inconsequential information, we meet Diane (Anne Dorval), a frazzled single mother heading to a juvenile detention center to pick up her teenage son, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), who is being kicked out of the facility after starting a fire and seriously injuring another kid. By all accounts, even the most liberal-minded person would take one look at Steve and shudder in fear and revulsion--although charming and charismatic when he wants to be, he is clearly emotionally disturbed in any number of way, has a violent temper that can go off in an instant and would also appear to have a number of unresolved Oedipal issues to boot. Diane realizes most of this but she is nevertheless a fiercely protective mother who refuses to write off her child. Besides, after watching her go through her own paces, it becomes clear that the pomme has not fallen too far from the tree in this particular case as she comes across as being wildly immature for someone her age.
Despite her best efforts to go it alone, Diane soon begins to realize that she is in over her head in regards to taking care of Steve and winds up enlisting the aid of a couple of neighbors. Kyla (Suzanne Clement) is a shy and stuttering teacher on leave from her job who is pressed into aiding with Steve's homeschooling. This addition proves to be satisfactory all around--Kyla proves to be an unexpectedly successful stabilizing force for Steve (who seems to develop a crush on her) and Diana (who seizes on her as perhaps her first real female friend) and she quickly appears to develop a more immediate bond with them than with her own husband and child, who are presumably not histrionic enough to be of interest. Less successfully integrated is a nice-guy lawyer (Patrick Huard) who offers to help with Steve's legal problems stemming from the fire and who also has designs on Diana as well. Not surprisingly, this does not set well with Steve and he freaks out badly, leaving Diana at her wits end. After all, what can she do--it isn't as if there is some magical law that would allow her to relieve herself of the terrible burden that she has taken on, right?
Say what you will about Xavier Dolan--the guy has talent to burn but the problem with "Mommy" is that he spends more time lighting matches than in telling a coherent or interesting story. His supporters may believe him to be some kind of original but to these eyes, his work, especially in this case, mostly feels like refried Leos Carax. He stumbles first with the incredibly arch title cards announcing the fictional law at the beginning, a move that essentially kills the dramatic tension right at the start by all but announcing the circumstances under which the story will end. Then there is the inescapable fact that Steve is not so much a believable character as he is a collection of overblown troubled teen cliches without any interesting qualities to speak of. This would not be so bad if the film itself saw him in that way but Dolan clearly sympathizes with him as much as he does Diana--he wants us to see some nobility in his wild and untamed actions but most viewers will want to commit him long before the movie arrives at its allegedly shattering climax. Since it is virtually impossible to work up any real empathy for such an overwhelmingly artificial construct of a character, there is a vast hole at the center that no amount of yelling, screaming or on-the-nose music cues from the relentless soundtrack can ever hope to fill.
Dolan's boldest move (or most irritating, depending on your point-of-view) stems from his decision to shoot virtually the entire film in a 1.1 aspect ration that reduced the image to a tight square located in the center of the screen. (By comparison, most movies today are either 1.85 or 2.35.1 and even the pre-widescreen ratios of old came in at around 1.33.1.) By presenting such a deliberately boxed-in visual (a feeling accentuated further by the deliberately tight framing in many of the scenes), Dolan is clearly trying to evoke for viewer the claustrophobic sense of hopelessness felt by Diane throughout. It is an interesting idea in theory but in practice, it comes across as a little too self-conscious and feels as if he is trying to convey through camera tricks the kind of emotions that should have been related through the story he is telling. To make matters worse, there are a couple of moments in which he acknowledges the fleeting happiness of his characters by stretching the picture out to a normal widescreen ratio as a way of suggesting the possibility of a bright future before shutting them down again. There are plenty of reviews that will claim this conceit to be a brilliant fusion of form and content but I all I could see was an empty cinematic metaphor that was nowhere near as powerful or profound as it would clearly like to be.Dolan is not a bad filmmaker by any means--if he were just a dope, this film would be nowhere near as frustrating as it is--and there are a number of things in it worth seeing. Some of the individual scenes are powerful and the performances by Dorval and Clement are both pretty spectacular (though I could have lived without the latter being forced to do a stammer throughout, a move that seems to exist only so that she can be unable to yell at a key dramatic turning point in order to milk the drama further in the most shameless manner imaginable). Like I said, I even had a certain fondness for it at first until I began thinking about it long enough for its shameless plotting and stylistic gambits to shift in the mind from intriguing to irritating. "Mommy" is too overblown, too in love with itself and, at 134 minutes, way too long for a film whose conclusion is pretty much preordained from its opening frames. That said, some people do love it and I wouldn't necessarily discourage you from seeing it if it sounds like something that might be up your alley--however, I would suggest that you avoid thinking about it too much after seeing it if you want to have any hopes of convincing yourself that you have seen something great.
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