Five years after his semi-autobiographical directorial debut, Xavier Dolan revisits the theme of mother-son relationships in his fifth film Mommy, a compelling companion piece to I Killed My Mother. There is an obvious parallel in its examination of these relationships: Xavier Dolan has mused that while I Killed My Mother “unfolds through the eyes of a whimsical teenager, the other contemplates a mother’s hardships.” This denial of a need to be “right” takes a step of maturity and empathy that is why Mommy may just be his best film.
Widowed for three years, Diane “Die” Després (Anne Dorval) is having a tough life. Her son Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon), an impulsive delinquent with hyperactivity and detachment, is released to her care after he is accused of lighting a fire that caused damage to seventy-five percent of a fellow student’s face. If he was too much for a centre for behaviourally challenged children to handle, surely he is too much for Die: as she learns that he will be living with her, once again, a staff member of the facility warns her that “loving people doesn’t save them.” Die has always been feisty and resilient: she scoffs that “skeptics will be proven wrong.”
Die and Steve have an unconventional mother-son relationship dynamic. Uncensored, they speak freely to each other with an air of comfortable familiarity, even if their strong personalities cause them to butt heads. Steve has not been home long before a tendency develops for them to veer towards toxicity. Just as their interactions are becoming too strained, Kyla (Suzanne Clément), a former high school teacher suffering from speech difficulties, moves into the home across the street from the Després household, and growing close with Die and Steve, becomes a supportive figure of mediation for the two. As this troubled pair becomes increasingly dependent on her, Kyla’s own family dynamic risks becoming strained.
While Mommy succeeds in portraying the tough demands of parenting a difficult child, it paints a fully realized portrait of a child’s own struggles with having to cope with feeling unwanted. To an audience with no point of reference to what the behaviour of a child with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder is like, Antoine Olivier Pilon’s performance could appear strident and caricatured: his Steve is loud, obnoxious, and seems to have no awareness of how abrasive he can be. He masters the surface qualities typical of these types of children, but expertly adds shades of nuance. Having severe detachment issues, and abandonment anxieties, Steve is constantly testing the limits of how much he can push his loved ones before they reach a breaking point, and it comes across with an authenticity and subtlety that contrasts with his histrionics. Meanwhile, Anne Dorval and Suzanne Clément, both powerhouse Dolan regulars, tear into their roles, and it is rewarding to see these remarkably talented thespians interacting in a major way, for the first time.
While I don’t wish to put words into the filmmaker’s mouth, Mommy feels like the first time that Dolan is fully committed to making the film that he wanted to make: unworried, with none of his often palpable thirst for validation. He embraces his excesses, the very qualities for which his detractors have criticized him, and the film is coloured by trademark lyrical, operatic outbursts in both its actors’ performances and the film’s own formal structuring. This is why it could prove to be his most accessible film, for many filmgoers (rather than for a noted absence of LGBT roles): it’s typically bold and passionate Dolan, but its strong projection of a matured confidence helps this film to ascend to a greater level of tangible sincerity.