Xavier Dolan’s rise as a director has been nothing short of meteoric. Born in 1989, he already has 5 feature films to his credit, has just started shooting a sixth and is down to direct his first English language work next year. He seems like a man in a hurry.
He doesn’t just direct, either. He writes and acts, too. There aren’t many people currently working in the film business who can do that, and achieve the level of consistency that he has. It’s a moot point as to whether he should start to be compared with Orson Welles. In cinematic terms maybe he’s not as original as Welles was – but in his latest work, Mommy, he shows the distinctive and highly personal vision that permeates his work.
In one sense, this new film is very autobiographical, He is on the record as saying that he thinks parents are generally not up to the job and his relationship with his own mother was poor. The film is one of several he has made exploring themes of parents, gender and identity and one feels he is busy coming to terms with these issues in his own life.
His first film – J’ai Tué Ma Mère (2009) – examined the fraught relationship between a young, gay adolescent and his mother. Laurence Anyways (2012) looked at the relationship issues faced by a male-to-female transexual going through gender re-aligment. Tom at the Farm (2013) featured Dolan himself as Tom, attending the funeral of his boyfriend (who had committed suicide) and finding that no-one in the family knew he was gay.
Mommy concentrates on Die and her 15 year old son Steve. She is a single parent, he has ADHD and has been in a residential school for the behaviourally challenged. When he is sent home for starting a fire, Die is faced with looking after him.
The film’s plot device is interesting. A caption at the start tells us that society allows parents legally to institutionalise their children if they are socially disfunctional. The heart of the story is the struggle that Die has to reconcile her maternal feelings with her instincts for self-preservation.
But no matter how much love she feels for Steve, that emotion is not one he reciprocates easily. From the start, the film is punctuated by violent altercations between them, shown with unflinching detail. As someone who has worked with children affected by ADHD and seen this behaviour at first hand, I applaud Dolan for showing what those affected by the condition have to endure with such honesty.
In my experience, there are few worthwhile systems or mechanisms (other than medication) for dealing with such people. Most of the time Society says ‘thank God it’s not us’ and passes the problem on to someone else. In the real world, it’s teachers or social workers. For Steve, it’s a neighbour, Kyla, a teacher herself. She is calm – she has her own problems – where Die and Steve are volatile, and this tranquility allows a bond to develop between the three of them. For Die, it’s a relief to have someone ‘normal’ she can talk to: for Steve, Kyla maybe represents the mother he wishes he had.
The film rarely breaks out of this triangle. The intensity of the relationships on display are accentuated by the aspect ratio. One of Dolan’s trademarks in earlier films is his use of framing: here, the aspect ratio creates its own boundaries, the whole film – with one genuinely dazzling exception towards the end – is shot in 1:1, mostly as close up or two-shot, which would have been a disaster if the acting were not of the highest quality. Fortunately, the cast are up to the challenge. The three leads have worked with Dolan before and are uniformly excellent.
It will be interesting to see if Dolan feels he can continue to mine these aspects of life in future. With Mommy, he has certainly peaked with his most fully rounded and complete work yet. It’s tremendous cinema.
Mommy is out on 20th July on DVD in the UK, released by Metrodome.