Whether or not you get on board with Mommy will be very much down to your initial reaction. If you’re not a fan of subtitles, that will be tick number one in the against column, (although I really have to question why that would be an issue) while the fact it is shot in a 1:1 ratio might just be the final nail in any respective coffin. It insures Mommy is never an easy watch, as the almost perfect square gives the whole film a sense of claustrophobia that it is hard to escape.
If you can get past that however, you will find a film that while a difficult watch, is also full of a lot of light. Paddington this is not, (I am now just seeing how many reviews I can mention it in) but there is still a lot of joy in this story.
Diane Despres is a widow who after the death of her husband watched her son, Steve, go off the rails. The film opens with her collecting him from the establishment he has been living in because he set fire to the kitchen, seriously hurting another boy. On their return home she tries desperately to set their lives straight, make the money they need and deal with his violent temper. Into this already dysfunctional family unit enters Kyla, a former teacher who lives with her family across the road and is now on sabbatical following an only hinted at mental breakdown.
On paper you can see that darkness I mentioned, but are maybe questioning where the light comes in. Well, that contrast can be nearly perfectly summed up in Steve, who is portrayed brilliantly by Antoine-Olivier Pilon. He is a loose cannon, likely to fly off the rails at any moment and yet on the other hand he is fiercely protective of his mother, constantly trying to keep her happy. He also loves dancing, particularly to Celine Dion of all people, and in between his bouts of aggression is a charming young man, someone who makes you laugh even as you think he deserves a clip around the ear.
Anne Dorval is also great, managing to imbue a lot of life into Diane. She’s not the perfect mother, struggling against the world and is flawed in her own ways, which just makes her seem all the more real. As you follow her day-to-day to life you want her to succeed, you want things to get better for her. A similar thing can be said for the timid Kyla, Suzanne Clement, whose back story is only hinted at and never fully explored. She’s the outsider in their relationship and in many ways the one who fixes it and fixes herself at the same time, slowly losing her stutter as she spends time around this mucked up family.
These characters come together in a world which despite its obvious darkness, is also regularly given beauty by director Xavier Dolan. Moments like them dancing in the kitchen together, forgetting their problems in a blur of music and freedom are incredibly touching. While one scene in which Steve skateboards down a street and reaches out his arms, physically pushing the screen into a more traditional ratio is truly stunning. It’s genuinely something that I have never seen in a cinema before and will stick in your mind long after the watching.
Yet that tough watch is definitely there. The majority of the film is done in that unusual aspect ratio and it makes you feel trapped with these characters. Stuck in a world which you can’t find an exit from. For all the brightness this film never dissolves into shmultz, it’s not one you go along to for a happy ending.
Mommy is a wonderful piece of work and I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say it is one of my films of the year so far. Like all the best films it feels like real life, mirroring both the good and the bad that happen to us all on a daily basis. What goes on in this film is a small part of a wider world and yet Dolan makes that small part seem so important for its two-hour running time. So if you are put off by subtitles and unusual framing you should fight to get past that, because past that this is a film that we can all relate to.