When Diane Després (Anne Dorval) signs her name to have son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) released from a teenage care facility, she scrawls her nickname — “Die” — before dotting the I with a heart. That tiny touch speaks volumes about the crossroads between ominous and ostentatious that Xavier Dolan’s Mommy calls home.
A borderline operatic melodrama that emphasizes the emotional states of Solondz-like misfits with Sirkian flair (and a needless near-future setting), it follows the ADHD-afflicted Steve back into Diane’s reluctant care. As a widow, she can hardly hold a job down without having to attend to his latest vulgar or violent outburst, and the schools won’t have him back. Enter Kyla (Suzanne Clément), a mousy neighbor with a bit of a stutter who can withstand Steve’s mood swings. In fact, by tolerating him, the newly empowered Kyla levels out the emotional extremes between mother and son, if only for a while.
With their tank tops, gold chains and loud mouths, the Despréses feel like the Québecois answer to Jersey trash, and as a filmmaker, Dolan seems to share their fondness for sheer volume. Shooting his film in an unheard-of 1:1 aspect ratio (think iPhone, Vine, Instagram, all-around claustrophobia) and loading up his soundtrack with ‘90s adult-alternative hits (Counting Crows, Dido, Eiffel 65, Oasis) in an attempt to make each one an anchor for the next iconic scene or montage, the criminally young auteur retains the flamboyant tendencies demonstrated in his nearly-three-hour-long transgender love story, Laurence Anyways.
Then again, as with that film, the outsized gestures often land with genuine emotion, whether it’s the sublime expansion of the square frame to reflect a character’s newfound sense of freedom or the pitch-perfect use of a more modern songstress as the end credits roll. The former gambit is repeated to less striking effect during a 25th Hour-aping coda-of-sorts, but by that point, the performers already have their hooks in. Dorval and Pilon start off from a place of caricature or somewhere awfully close to it, but their initially abrasive personalities — Steve is especially offensive from the get-go — give way to a credibly tumultuous dynamic defined by deep-seated concern as much as wall-pounding stubbornness.
Although ostensibly meeker, Clément is every bit their equal, more supportive than subservient, and together, they form a three-way relationship that never becomes as overtly sexualized as one might expect, or fear. (Down that path lies far too many overwrought indies.) She even gets one particular outburst to rival what was perhaps her best scene in Laurence, a perfect moment when Kyla pins down Steve to reveal a reservoir of hidden strength as he falls silent for once, before in turn showing us just how vulnerable this little shithead can be.
To paraphrase the title of a far less involving film, that’s Dolan’s style in a nutshell: letting things get extremely loud before pulling us in incredibly close to witness the fallout. The characters of Mommy walk a thin line between love and hate throughout; the film itself does so with an uncommon strut.
The Upside: Frequently bravura filmmaking in service of three terrific performances
The Downside: Running a lengthy 139 minutes, all the muchness can be, well, a bit much
On the Side: At the age of 25, Mommy is already Dolan’s fifth feature (the bastard).