'Mommy' is an earthy but overdone study of the bond
between tough mom and out-of-control kid.
LOVE YOU, MOMMY: Mother Diane (Anne Dorval), left, and son Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon), right, show their affection in unorthodox ways in 'Mommy.'

Due to the insistence of a director or the over-emphasis of an actor, sometimes a movie can seem like a big pail of other people's problems. The lead performances and the length of Mommy induce some compassion fatigue.

Moreover, Mommy has an experimental aspect ratio of 1.1. The 25-year-old Quebecois director Xavier Dolan claims this square format encourages simplicity. The perfect squareness was rectangular on the film screen I saw it on, suggesting the window of a smart phone. (This could be the aspect ratio of the future.) The square opened occasionally to wide screen for more lyrical moments. Still, Dolan blinkers his screen, forcing attention on the small cast and cutting out the world around them.

Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) is a severe ADHD case in his late teens; he's managed to kick his way out of the institution he's been in. His mother Dianne (Anne Dorval) is forced to take him back. Dorval, a cross between Fran Drescher and Marisa Tomei, plays the mommy as a hardened middle-aged punkette with a lock of dyed blonde hair. Diane calls herself Di; she signs the release papers "DIE" as a special message to the fat gorgon who works at the juvenile hall desk. She proposes to home-school Steve. (Di is supposed to be a writer, but the world of books and reading is pretty much out of sight, except for a children's book she's translating.)

Di has a new neighbor—a mute? No, Kyla (Suzanne Clement) merely has a terrible stutter like Ben Stiller's Simple Jack; after a breakdown, she's on sabbatical from teaching high school students. Kyla comes into the picture to act as teacher and surrogate aunt.

Dolan demonstrates serious talent in Mommy—he's come a long way since previous boutique-film trifles. A number of scenes transcend the sometimes loud, occasionally monotonous maternal-filial push and pull. As always, it's the quiet moments that convince, not the tirades. It's the slow dawning of betrayal in Steve's face when he's sitting, zoned out, in a car in a rainy parking lot. Earlier, Kyla, provoked by Steve's roughhousing, goes for his neck like a tiger, knocking him flat. Hissing in Steve's face and literally scaring the piss out of him, Clement shows she's another formidable woman from the land of Genevieve Bujold.

One possible reason Mommy won at Cannes: there's rich dialogue for Francophones. The script is in a slangy patois that's likely tough for people outside of Quebec to really understand. But the words surely have yeast—the slang we get in the subtitles, derived from ghetto parlance, can't match it. The only way we can believe Di is a writer is by the way she uses words, and it's clear we're missing a lot of tasty idiom.

Dolan brims with sympathy for this bad, mad kid. But Mommy has the problem of a character who is allowed to go crazy whenever he wants, pushing back against anyone else who tries to have a good time. Pilon's golden attractiveness includes a loose sensual mouth, and a jaw that he thrusts forward when he pouts, like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. The cuteness helps him get away with things—Steve is so commonly flirtatious with his mom that when he tries to give her breasts a little feel, she brushes his hands away with as minor upset as if he were a fly.

Dolan is up to something here, and a stranger folie a deux could have made for something fairly intense. I loved watching Clement, yowling with laughter during a scene of shared wine, as a summer thunderstorm is brewing. For all of Steve's outbursts, Kyla is the least predictable person in the film. But you begin to wonder if Kyla is meant as a chaperone.

Dolan is a '60s-phile, as we saw in his pleasantly jackdawish film Heartbeats (aka Les Amours Imaginaires), and he seems sometimes to be backtracking to the days when society was crazy and crazy people were secretly sane. Parents with troubled children might well identify with Mommy. I'm ultimately unsure if Dolan understands that kids like these are more often born than made.


R; 139 Min

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