We all know that Hollywood has never been much of a friend to poor people. Hell, even respected filmmakers like Woody Allen demonstrate a complete lack of understanding for the situations of the less fortunate. You remember Sally Hawkins's "dreadful" lower class apartment in Blue Jasmine? It was like a mansion.
Xavier Dolan, a twenty five-year-old who has been making films since he was nineteen, has a better, if imperfect, grasp on the plight of struggling folks. His latest film, Mommy, is concerned with a middle-aged widow who has to take care of her violent teenaged son after social services gives him the boot (he did set a cafeteria on fire and severely burn a kid, after all). Before her husband died, Diane—or "Die" Després (Anne Dorval)—might have been better off; now, not so much. She scrapes by on odd jobs, vacillating between translating children's stories into English or cleaning rich people's houses. Her ability to do either of these things is complicated by Steve's (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) arrival, who can't even make it back home after his first day out without picking a racially charged fight with his black cab driver. After an explosive and brutal argument between the two, Steve finds that he is calmed by their taciturn neighbor, Kyla (Suzanne Clément), a high school teacher who is on sabbatical due to mysterious reasons. Too dangerous for ordinary schools, Steve requires homeschooling, which Kyla is more than happy to do pro bono so that Die can make some money for her growing family.
Mommy is being incorrectly billed as a comedy, but I believe that the main reason for its mis-categorization is that Die and Steve are a deliriously trashy bunch. Die dresses like a seventh-grader who recently discovered Claire's and the low-rider jeans section of Pac Sun. She carries herself like one as well, constantly smacking gum like a petulant schoolgirl who can't wait to ditch class to smoke in the woods with the older kids. Knowing full well her physical strengths, she dons a ludicrously small and tight skirt at a job interview, only to be waylaid by the all-too-aware wife of the man she intended to seduce. Steve, on the other hand, is given to wearing wife beaters and that silver chain that was mega-popular around 2001. Both he and his mother curse non-stop, their dialogue less of a conversation and more of a constant shouting match, like the guitar section of a ten-piece thrash metal band. Steve has an incredibly short fuse, and is liable to explode into a tornado of fists and threats at the slightest provocation. At one point, the only way for Die to prevent her son from choking her to death is by smashing his head with a picture frame.
Their torrid relationship provides a lot of sound and fury for the film, but it often signifies not a whole lot. Dolan has plenty of affection for these characters, and devotes a considerable amount of the film's nigh-two and a half hours to lyrical moments of his protagonists enjoying the finer things in life, like picking an apple from a tree or swinging a shopping cart around a parking lot in slow motion. But he betrays a bit of condescension in just how cartoonish they can be. You almost expect them to get into one of those Looney Tunes-style rumbles where there's just a dust cloud and a torrent of fists. Thankfully, there is Clément, whose performance is as internalized as her co-stars' are externalized. She stutters painfully, fighting to get even a cry for help out when she needs it most. Clément plays her beautifully: her genuineness convinces us that someone in the world would not only not sprint in the opposite direction from the Després clan, but actually function better in their presence (in comparison, she is stultified by her milquetoast husband).
The star of the show is less Dolan the writer and more Dolan the filmmaker. I saw this film the day after I watched the Dardennes's Two Days, One Night, and the younger gentleman could not be more different from them. His approach is equal in showiness to the exuberant destruction happening onscreen, the foremost example of which is his bizarre and constricting use of a 1:1 aspect ratio for the frame—think of watching a movie that was filmed by an iPhone entirely in portrait mode. Subtlety clearly not being Dolan's bag, he doesn't wait too long before Steve actually spreads the frame with his hands to the 16:9 widescreen ratio we're used to. Despite its Brechtian distancing effect (you'll never forget you're watching a movie), this moment is liberating an exhilarating, and only one of the many examples in this film. Not unlike the fall's Skeleton Twins, in which a pop sung is performed in its entirety by the lip-synching leads, a French-language Celine Dion ditty provides a much-needed respite from the chaos of the story, as the three characters belt their hearts out in unison like you'd never believe them capable of.
Speaking of distancing devices, there is an odd title card at the beginning of the film that establishes that the story takes place in an alternate version of French Canada, in which parents and guardians are allowed by the law to admit their children to a psychiatric hospital without question if they are demonstrably violent to themselves or others. This law comes up in the story—only to be dismissed outright by Die—but it continues to sit on the wall like Chekhov's gun. Whether it goes off, I won't say, but its existence is baffling at best, and a convenient narrative get-out-of-jail-free-card for Dolan at worst. I'm nothing if not unfamiliar with the culture of Quebec, so maybe there is a deeper, possibly satirical element to this plot wrinkle. Barring that, it damages the film's substantial emotional impact for sure.
Mommy, despite its pedigree—Dolan shared a jury prize with none other than Jean-Luc freakin' Godard at Cannes last year—is a frequently problematic, yet just as often breathtaking film. Most directors have either ironed in or ironed out the kinks by their fifth feature. Let's hope that by the time Dolan makes his first English-language feature, which will star Jessica Chastain (!), he's finally sorted himself out.