If Canadian director Xavier Dolan’s debut, “I Killed My Mother,” served as the petulant revenge of a misunderstood son upon the single mom who raised him, then his unexpectedly self-effacing fifth feature, “Mommy,” acknowledges that perhaps the lack of understanding went both ways. This time, the offscreen director puts himself in his mom’s shoes, casting Anne Dorval once again as a strong, independent woman overwhelmed with the task of caring for a teenage tyrant. It’s uncanny how much Dolan’s style and overall solipsism have evolved in five years’ time, resulting in a funny, heartbreaking and, above all, original work — right down to its unusual 1:1 aspect ratio — that feels derivative of no one, not even himself.
Though scarcely known in the States, where his sophomore feature “Heartbeats” earned just shy of $600,000, and “I Killed My Mother” and the gender-resistant romance “Laurence Anyways” received only minor arthouse releases, Dolan exploded on the international festival scene in 2009 with a textbook case of “therapy through filmmaking.” One can almost imagine Dolan, now 25, wincing as he revisits his bratty, Camera d’Or-winning debut — the way any artist does when confronted with work that seems to have sprung from a different person than he is today.
There’s no question that “Mommy” is informed by the same autobiographical elements that inspired “I Killed My Mother”: the shouty antagonism, the manic codependence and his mom’s still-unforgiven decision to send Dolan to boarding school when his antics became too much to bear. Here, the writer-director whips up a social-sci-fi scenario to explain an equivalent form of involuntary institutionalization, where a new Quebec law allows parents to skip the courts and commit problem children directly into state care.
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Surely the dilemma facing recent widow Diana “Die” Despres (Dorval) would be just as easy to follow — not to mention a smidge less pretentious — without the clunky pre-film chyron explaining the made-up S-14 law. Actually, this intro proves a bit misleading, since the fact that this near-future Quebec society has made the process easy confuses just how difficult it eventually will be for Die to surrender her 15-year-old son, Steve(Antoine Olivier Pilon), to whom she has dedicated everything.
With his blond hair and blue eyes, Steve can look beatific one moment and positively devilish the next, like a freak-forward glimpse of a decade-older Dennis the Menace, stirring up a more provocative, sexually aggressive brand of trouble in his mid-teens. One look at Die and it’s clear where much of his nonconformist spirit comes from: For a woman in her 50s, she’s an unpredictable force of nature, too, striding through the suburbs in pole-dancing pumps and painted-on jeans — a look that might be tacky if not played with such conviction by Dorval. Put these two under the same roof, and it’s a wonder the place doesn’t spontaneously burst into flames.
As if Die doesn’t already have enough on her plate, Delon puts her through a car crash on her way to collect Steve from the special care facility where he set fire to the cafeteria. Within her first few scenes, it’s clear this woman has thick skin and an even thicker accent (so much so that the Cannes screening projected the French-language pic with both French and English subtitles), but isn’t quite tough enough to home-school her son as she intends. Lucky for them, their crazy energy attracts the attention of a mousy high-school teacher (“Laurence Anyways” co-star Suzanne Clement) living across the street.
Only an actress as compelling as Clement could keep the introverted, stuttering Kyla from disappearing in the other Despres duo’s shadow. Though Kyla has zoned out with her own family, she’s drawn to her new neighbors’ supernova dynamic and agrees to help, with disruptive effects on both sides. Like all Dolan’s self-edited films, “Mommy” is easily 50% longer than it needs to be, and yet, between Steve’s constant Tourette’s-like outbursts and his over-the-top professions of love for both women, there’s never a dull moment.
In a typically impulsive gesture, Dolan decided to shoot his freewheeling meller in a square frame (though the version screened at Cannes actually looked taller than it was wide), pillarboxing the 1:1 image with black bars on either side. However unnatural the viewing experience, those dimensions force us directly into the center of this already over-intimate menage, but come at the expense of some of d.p. Andre Turpin’s most invigorating images — like the revolving shot of Steve spinning a grocery cart in a strip-mall parking lot to the Counting Crows’ “Colorblind.”
Dolan has played with aspect ratios before, tightening the framing during the suspense sequences of “Tom at the Farm,” for example. Twice the borders expand to fill the entire screen here, supplying a bittersweet glimpse into Steve’s future as only his optimistic mother could imagine it — a hopeful sequence that replays in our minds (but not onscreen) during her most demanding scene at the end of the picture.
Life with Steve is no picnic, swinging from violent outbursts to semi-Oedipal kiss-and-make-up sessions, the potentially inappropriate nature of which is canceled out by ample evidence that this momma’s boy blew the hinges off his closet door long ago. However dangerous their psychologically tangled situation can get, Dolan plays the relationship in bright, high-energy terms, underscoring at least half the film’s 139-minute running time in mix-CD pop tunes — the only downer being a humiliating karaoke rendition of Andrea Bocelli’s “Vivo per lei.”
So, whereas Dolan’s debut was fueled by pent-up resentment the director obviously needed to get out of his system, “Mommy” demonstrates a newfound appreciation for just how much his mother put up with. Chances are, most of “Mommy’s” eventual audience won’t have seen that earlier film, which borrowed a bit too heavily from other arthouse helmers whose work Dolan may or may not have seen, but whose style had some how trickled down into his technique all the same (perhaps via musicvideos, that great synthesizer of art-film innovation).
Composed of one unpredictable scene after another without the meandering self-indulgence of previous films, “Mommy” feels as if Dolan has deliberately unlearned everything he’s seen onscreen before and embraced a fresh naivete that allows him to seek the most direct, honest and emotional way of communicating any given feeling. At times, the film ignores narrative altogether, fetishizing one of Die’s mismatched outfits or delving into a vivid anecdote, a la hilarious box-wine scene. The result is as personal as ever, an ecstatic celebration not only of mothers, but of the two incredible actresses Dolan has adopted as muses along the way.