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‘Mommy’ Dearest Emotional Horror Movie of the Season – Film Review

Like the bastard child of John Cassavetes and Ingmar Bergman, prolific French Canadian film director Xavier Dolan has made an exhilarating, intimate family drama that digs deep and plays dirty. Mommy is a character study of a warm-blooded widowed single mother, Diane (Anne Dorval) and her virile but damaged son Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon). When “Die” brings her towheaded teenager home from a juvenile facility where he’s just endangered the physical well-being of a fellow inmate, she fights to maintain a normal family life with her son outside of the institution. It won’t be easy.

The trick here is that wunderkind Dolan (who previously dealt with mommy issues in I Killed My Mother) paints both suburban mom and son in so many colors. In French and set in the director’s native Quebec, the mother-child relationship spans the spectrum from intense loving borderline incestuous to blood-drawing violence – sometimes within the same scene, or even the same beat. Meanwhile, the underlying mood swings from ecstatic joy to darkest despair. When the pair invites the damaged stuttering neighbor from across the street, Kyla (Suzanne Clement) into the mix, they disturb her peace in a way that she both needs and cannot handle.

Dolan rips away the bandages on those tidy terms – domestic violence, troubled teen – and gives us flesh-and-blood struggling individuals without slipping into movie-of-the-week pathos. Recalling We Need to Talk about Kevin – rent it if you’ve never seen it for another incomparable Tilda Swinton performance – this drama refuses to demonize the son or blame the mother. And, while you can judge their actions, you can never doubt the fierce intensity of their love, and the depth of their intimacy.

In one apparently mundane scene, Steve, newly released from juvenile detention and roaming his mother’s lunar suburban neighborhood. He rides a shopping cart through the empty streets listening to his music – running fast, pushing hard, floating on the momentum, swinging the cart before him. The sequence captures the beautiful boy in the man’s body raw, and playful, and electric with life – a totally twisted alternate universe of Gene Kelly singing in the rain. In that sequence, we see Steve as the wild explorer he might have been, with a hunger for freedom and a zest for life that finds the majority of the rest of us just trudging across the landscape with our shopping.

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Dorval and Pilon perform ferociously, flames in the wind. The fiftysomething beauty Dorval radiates hope through despair, sexual frustration, maternal in a way that recalls Gena Rowlands. The laugh lines framing her lips and eyes cut as deep as the worried furrows on her brow. And there is a frightening spontaneity to the muscular Pilon with his angelic looks and his ability to shapeshift in short bursts, from bruised child to violently aggressive adult. This is acting for the camera not the Oscar, diving deep into emotions from which most people flinch.

Can Diane rescue Steve, with his extreme and often anti-social spectrum of behavior, through the sheer force of her love? In one segment that rushes by, Diane envisions him grown, graduating college, marrying, leading a normal life that will nourish her own. It’s a visual poem to what might have been, a future that will not lie flat in front of her. And it is the most emotionally devastating sequence of any movie I’ve seen in the last twelve months, including my beloved Boyhood.

Thelma Adams, Editor, Film

January 28, 2014

 


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