Mommy (2014, dir. Xavier Dolan)
The film opens with title cards that explain we are going to be viewing an alternate 2015 where a new political regime has come to power in Canada and passed a law titled S-14. The law allows for parents of emotionally troubled children who are in low socio-economic conditions to send their children to hospitals and mental health care facilities without regard to fundamental justice. Fundamental justice is a much broader sense of civil rights, designed to anticipate unknown future laws that might try to violate the rights of individuals by being intentionally vague. In this situation, we meet Diana Després (Anne Dorval), a widowed journalist who is forced to remove her emotionally unstable son, Steve, from a juvenile detention facility after he burns another child. From there, their living situation becomes more complicated as work dries up and tension between Diana and Steve intensifies. Into this mix is thrown their neighbor across the street, Kyla (Suzanne Clément). This trio makes up a very different family unit, and they experience highs and lows ending up in a bittersweet place at the end of the film.
This is the last Xavier Dolan film of the month, and it is fascinating to see his growth as a filmmaker in a relatively short time. I Killed My Mother came out in 2009 and next year he has his seventh film coming out. He has also developed a stronger sense of aesthetics since that first feature. In an interview about Mommy, Dolan explained the importance of fashion in his work and how designing the costume of his characters is a crucial element in his writing and directing. In Mommy, each character tells us their story through their clothes, before a single word is even spoken.
The element of the film that you’ll immediately notice is the 1:1 aspect ratio, meant to resemble a cell phone camera filming. The movie is not found footage, but Dolan explained that he believes the aspect ratio to feel incredibly intimate. This seemingly unimportant and possibly pretentious element of filmmaking actually plays a crucial role in conveying the emotional conditions of the characters. Twice in Mommy, the screen expands to a 2:35:1 ratio. The first time this happens, it is to convey a sense of exhilaration and the second is to communicate Diana’s internal pain and struggle near the end.
Not enough can be said about the performances of Anne Dorval and Suzanne Clément in this film. Both actresses have been with Dolan in four out of his now seven films. Each time they play a prominent role they reveal a different facet of themselves. Dorval has played a mother in three films (I Killed My Mother, Heartbeats, and Mommy) and each portrayal is of an entirely different character. Clément is amazing to watch in light of her performance in Laurence Anyways. Kyla could not be a more different character, but the actress brings layers of depth and leaves ambiguity as to what has left Kyla with her speech impediment and why she has gone on sabbatical from teaching.
What is most important about Mommy is it’s honest and heartbreaking portrayal of how poverty destroys a family’s ability to get quality mental and emotional care. Financial hardship creates barriers to getting a lawyer, paying the bills, and generally living life. Diana struggles with creating a sense of hope for Steve and succumbing to the stresses of life and lashing out at him. Diana sums it up in a speech that can be read in some different ways:
“[…] I’m full of hope, okay. The world ain’t got tons of hope. But I like to think it’s full of hopeful people, hoping all day long. Better off that way because us hopeful people can change things. Hopeful world with hopeless people…that won’t get us far. I did what I did, so that way there is hope.”