Friday, July 3, 2015

Mommy


Directed by Xavier Dolan.

2014. Rated R, 138 minutes.
Cast:
Anne Dorval
Antoine-Olivier Pilon
Suzanne Clement
Patrick Huard
Alexandre Goyett
Michele Lituac

Our story begins as Diane (Dorval) is picking up her teenage son Steve (Pilon) from an institution after another violent outburst. He appears to suffer from some form of autism, and has been labeled as a child with behavior issues. She is going to take him home and try to raise him herself. At times, he's just too much for her. A major dilemma is that Steve needs to be home-schooled, but Diane needs to work in order to support them. To help with this, neighbor Kyla (Clement) agrees to help with the schooling. Before you know it, she's like a third member of their family. All the while, the relationship between Diane and Steve ebbs and flows. As things move along, we're drawn deeper into a world where there are no easy solutions to the problems that arise. Whatever answers we may come up with only lead to more questions. We recognize that these people are in a difficult situation and grasping at straws to see what works.

The role of Steve is a tricky one to get right. When portraying a person with a mental disability, it's easy to go way over the top and come off as cartoonish, or to play it too flat and never rise above being a caricature. Antoine-Olivier Pilon manages to find a solid balance. Even during his most outrageous moments, we know that this is not some raving lunatic, but a boy struggling to grow up. These are followed by a period of expressive remorse and feels true to life in my limited, but up close experience with such youngsters (can't really say anymore on that). The writing must also be credited for this as it handles this character with much care.

As good as Pilon is, it's the performance of Anne Dorval as Diane that drives the movie. She is phenomenal in one of my favorite turns of 2014. She gives us both raw emotion and guarded action. She plays Diane as a woman who puts up a tough front with everyone, including her troubled son, but walks on eggshells around him due to her underlying fear of what his reactions might be. It's clear that she is ill-prepared to deal with this situation, but is learning as she goes along. Diane struggles to express even the simplest niceties because she abhors the thought of her own vulnerability. There are times when she knows she must. It's terribly difficult for her to swallow that pill, but she does. Because she will do anything for her son, she isn't necessarily shy about asking for help, but showing gratitude when that help is granted is a problem. Dorval conveys all of this, effortlessly. We never feel that she is acting. Instead, she feels like a woman, a mother, in over her head, fighting tooth and nail to make this life of hers work.


Director Xavier Dolan does a wonderful job giving these characters, plus Kyla, plenty of room to breathe and grow together. He makes it clear that the three of them are constantly learning, not only one another, but themselves. To accomplish this, he never rushes his story. He lets it develop organically. At the same time, it's paced extremely well and never drags. He does what Richard Linklater tries and fails to do with Boyhood. Dolan puts us inside the everyday lives of characters who feel like real human beings without an actual plot and makes it a compelling experience. We watch intently and rack our brains trying to figure out what shape these people will be in when we leave them, not lamenting how much longer it will be before we do. Dolan maintains the focus on the relationship between the mother and son by ensuring every second of the film affects it, even if one of them are not present. This includes Steve's interactions with Kyla. The two develop a relationship of their own, but everything that happens between them ultimately informs what happens between him and Diane. It's an intently focused film that never waivers, nor lets us waiver.

In many cases, our greatest strengths are also our biggest weaknesses. Such is the case with Mommy. The focus that lets us dive in and swim around the lives of Steve and Diane also excludes a huge chunk of Kyla's life to the film's detriment. We know that she is a wife and a mother, yet that's all we ever know of who she is. This isn't satisfactory due to the sheer amount of time she spends with our main characters. She's with them seemingly all day, every day. Occasionally, she doesn't make it home for dinner. We get very brief glimpses that this doesn't necessarily sit well with her husband, but it's not explored. In a film about relationships, it feels like a missed opportunity to not examine how much (or how little) damage she is doing to the ones she had before we met her. Near the end of the movie, she goes back to the way things were before Diane came calling for help as if nothing ever happened. During the entirety of the movie I wondered what her husband and child think about this? It felt like an empty space that, if filled, would really make Kyla a great third character, a fully fleshed out being. As it stands, she's a glorified nanny who only exists to serve the needs of our heroes. Her flatness robs the film of the emotional heft it was going for with a moment between Kyla and Diane. More importantly, it robs us of knowing what makes Kyla tick.

Another issue with this film's ultra-focus is that Dolan extends it to the technical side of things. He plays a game with the movie's aspect ratio meant to be deeply symbolic, but is actually annoying. Much of Mommy is shown to us through a sliver of the screen. Through this, we're supposed to feel claustrophobic and suffer from the same boxed-in feeling the people on the screen presumably have. At points where the world seems to be a particularly happy places, the shots widen out to a more conventional ratio only to shrink back down when things return to their version of normal. It's so blatantly done that it's distracting and ineffective. I'm no director and have no expertise in film-making, but it seems there are more subtle ways to achieve the effect Dolan wants. The example that comes to mind is Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men. Throughout that movie, subjects were shown using increasingly closer shots. The increase was gradual. By the end, we felt like we were really locked in the juror's room with twelve angry men. Similar tactics could have been used here. Instead, Dolan opts to have things such as Steve literally opening up the frame. It feels gimmicky and, therefore, unnecessary.


As strengths tend to do, they manage to make up for their shortcomings. In this case, it's a double-barreled climax that lifts us to unimaginable heights and abruptly drops up from them. I won't spoil what happens. I will say it's set up by a montage that rivals the opening of Disney's Up for emotional power, and concludes with a bold ending critiquing mental healthcare in Canada. The movie ends, not where we want it to, but where it must. The question we have to ask ourselves is whether or not this is good for the people involved? When asking this, we must be prepared that we may come up with different answers and/or reasons why for each of our three main characters. We must also be prepared to change what those answers might be, a number of times. Nothing is black-and-white. Right and wrong are fluid concepts that change based on the situation. Mommy shows us this and dares us to figure it out. We give it our best shot, or we're just saddened by a simple, but literal interpretation of what happens. This helps us ignore the film's imperfections and dig into its meat. Thankfully, there's plenty to chew on.

21 comments:

  1. Right now, this is my 2nd favorite Dolan film and certainly one of his best. Having seen all of his films now, I feel like he is just getting started and there's more to come as I haven't really felt excited about any filmmaker and his progress like this since Quentin Tarantino. Yet, I also feel like Dolan has already managed to display the kind of mastery that most filmmakers would crave for. Hell, he's better than I think a lot of the established filmmakers right now.

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    1. This is my first experience with Dolan. He certainly has something to say and a fascinating way to say it. I'm definitely up to see more of his work.

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  2. Agree the performances are great, and I agree it didn't feel like acting. I think I read in an interview with Dolan that Steve's character has ADHD, but I guess the main thing is he has a mental illness, which is making life difficult for both himself and those around him.
    You make an interesting point about Kyla, who does seem to neglect her husband and child. I saw Kyla as unhappy, wanting a different life, and she finds joy with her new friends. Maybe that joy is lacking at home. I also considered whether she was a closet lesbian in love with Diane? In some ways I think the film is more interesting by leaving that open to interpretation.

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    1. I've read that Steve has ADHD in several places. He just feels like some of the kids I've come into contact with, for whom ADHD is more or less a symptom of what else they have going on. I agree that the main thing here isn't a specific diagnosis, though. I got the sense that Kyla is unhappy also, but it felt disingenuous that she's all in as a second mother to Steve and never once expresses any concern for her own child. As for the lesbian angle, it's possible, and I did consider that myself, but I find it just as likely that she had some sexual attraction for Steve and just didn't/couldn't/wouldn't express this. That part of it I do like being left open. I just thought her own family situation should have been addressed better.

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  3. OMG!

    I saw your link with Mommy as the title and my heart jump! You (and the rest of the internet) knows that this is MY FAVORITE MOVIE OF ALL TIME and so...you can read my thoughts here (I hope you do...I'd love to hear your thoughts):

    http://afistfuloffilms.blogspot.com/2015/02/we-still-love-each-other-right.html#more

    But, back to your thoughts. I'm so glad you liked this. Dorval is great, and I love that you highlight the balance in Pilon's acting. This was a really tricky role, and he nailed it (bravo, as you said, to Dolan for his screenplay as well). I disagree with you on Kyla, for a few reasons. She wasn't the focal point of the story, but there to serve as an additional POV, and I think Clement did that beautifully. There is just enough unspoken backstory that colors in her perception without taking away from the core story. Yes, she spends a lot of time with them, but as the film progresses, it is what she doesn't say that speaks the loudest and helps tell us her story. The scene at the hospital, in the car, her panic as she's being brought back to this place she doesn't want to be...it's heartbreaking.

    But I can see how some might not see it that way. I'll admit, I was underwhelmed with her particular storyline when I first saw the film, but I've seen it many times since then and it's all developed so strongly for me now.

    EEK!!! I'm just so happy you liked this. This is that one movie that literally gives me chills when someone says they like it. It means that much to me.

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    1. I will definitely go back to your post on it some time this weekend (today, hopefully) and I'm fully aware this is your all-time fave. It's definitely well done and I look forward to seeing more of Dolan's work. Interesting take on Kyla. We still disagree, but I understand where you're coming from. Love to hear that any movie means so much to someone.

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    2. It's absolutely worth watching. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

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  4. Excellent review! I loved the film but I agree with you about Kyla, comparing to the other two characters she is just kinda sorta....there.

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    1. Thanks. That is so how I feel about her. She could be so much more, but just isn't.

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  5. Great review mate, you really made a lot of good points

    The aspect ratio gave me the shits too. So obvious! I didn't catch that one of Steve opening the screen with his hands, that is just... as you said, unnecessary.

    II had a rough relationship with my mother so this one hit home for me. Annoying aspect ratio or not, its a good flick. I don't think though Dolan has matured enough yet to make a truly great film. I guess we'll soon see, he seems to churn them out fairly regularly!

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    1. Yeah, I couldn't get with the aspect ratio game. Felt pointless. It most certainly is a good flick. No denying that. Dolan has room to improve and might really deliver something undeniably great.

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    2. I totally respect your opinion, guys...but when Steve opens that frame with his hands my heart literally stopped. That moment is EVERYTHING!!!

      UGH!!!

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    3. Didn't hit me that way. I was more like "Really...sigh."

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  6. I need to see this. I just added it to my Netflix queue. The whole shifting aspect ratios seems off-putting to me. I've read some reviews where people just down right hated it. It seems interesting enough to give it a try, and the story underneath the style is something that seems to work and to be something I would really connect to.

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    1. The story beneath the style absolutely works. It is a really good film. That aspect ratio is a divisive point, however. Either way, it really is worth checking out.

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  7. Excellent review! I wish we would've gotten to know Kyla better. What made her the way she is now, etc. That disappointed me that we never found out. Still, I loved this film. I get how the ratio isn't for everyone. My husband took one look at the film and nope'd the hell out of the room. lol

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    1. Like you, I do love it, but not knowing more about Kyla bugs the hell out of me. Completely get where your husband is coming from.

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  8. I hope you get this comment, since I'm coming back to an old post. I didn't want to read this review until I'd seen the movie.

    Excellent review! I agree with you about the beauty of the acting, especially Dorval, and also about the film's weaknesses. So much is hinted at with Kyla, but almost nothing is revealed. I usually appreciate the power of showing your readers or audience only the tip of the iceberg, but in this case, it didn't quite work for me. I didn't like the ratio gimmick either. As you said, there are subtler ways to achieve the effect he was going for. But the storytelling was amazing.

    On a tangential note, I thought it was interesting that you interpreted Steve as having some form of autism. I saw a hint of that too, though his mental illness (reactive attachment disorder ?) certainly seemed to be a much bigger issue. Who knows?

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    1. Thanks for coming back to it. There is something to be said for leaving a few things up to the viewer or reader, but in this case it removes her motivation. She's rendered entirely too mysterious in a role and a movie that calls for transparency.

      I work with kids who behave very similarly to Steve and almost all of them are diagnosed with some form of autism. Whether or not Steve's diagnosis qualifies as such I have no idea. That's just how it appears to my amateur eye.

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    2. I didn't know you'd worked with troubled kids -- it sounds like we've had similar professional experiences. :)

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