Mommy (2014)

Xavier Dolan | 2hr 13min

Orson Welles was just 25 years old when he made Citizen Kane. Paul Thomas Anderson, only 26 with his first big masterpiece, Boogie Nights. This may not be on the same level as either of those films, but Xavier Dolan still has them beat when it comes to age – he was a mere 24 years old when he shot Mommy and launched to international fame. It may be just as surprising that this is his fifth feature film given his relative youth, but the years he spent refining his artistic voice as a young adult are evident. Even as Mommy tunes into the unsettled malaise that hangs over emotionally disconnected generations of parents and children, there is little self-centred angst to be found here, as Dolan instead foregrounds the anguish of both widowed mother, Die, and her troubled son, Steve, on equal planes of empathy.

The concept of a near-future society where problematic children can be placed in hospitals under state care is a little bit of a ham-fisted addition into a drama which could have otherwise unfolded in the present with some minor tweaks, but nevertheless, it remains a constant threat that looms over Die and Steve all throughout Mommy. There is an Oedipal layer to their relationship in his expressions of jealousy and possessiveness over her, especially as he develops an attraction to another woman who looks strikingly similar. His ADHD and violent tendencies frequently land them both in tricky and dangerous situations, and yet for all of these issues that keeping driving wedges between them, their interactions also contain an abundance of tenderness and joy, brought vividly to life in a volatile but sensitive performance from Antoine Olivier Pilon. It is this warmth which Dolan delights in expressing through vibrant colours and blissful slow-motion sequences, letting his narrative briefly step aside for moments where Steve, Die, and their new friend, Kyla, break free from the pressures and constraints of their difficult lives.

Vibrant colours in Steve’s life, expressing an emotional journey of volatile anger, but also great joy.
An excellent use of the 1:1 aspect ratio in framing these extremely tight close-ups.

Whether or not one can fully get behind Dolan’s choice to let most of Mommy play out in the highly unusual 1:1 aspect ratio, it is hard to argue against the impact of its literal expansion in those moments of unhindered exuberance. Few filmmakers through history have experimented with shifting ratios in such formally exciting ways, so it is somewhat surprising that in 2014 we saw two directors at the top of their game literally push these boundaries, both here in Mommy and in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Where Anderson uses it to signify different historical eras though, here it confines Dolan’s characters in literal boxes, keeping our focus largely on their faces more than their surroundings. The moment where Steve physically pushes against the edges of the frame in an embrace of pure freedom is transcendent, bringing with it a hint of a happy future for this small family.

A transcendent cinematic moment – Steve pushing the aspect ratio outwards, physically expanding his world.

This device returns again later in a poignant vision of an alternate future dreamed up by Die where such prospects actually exist, and where Steve is led down a more hopeful path than the one he is on. But all throughout this heartbreaking sequence, faces remain just slightly out of focus, and much like we saw earlier, the fantasy comes to a sobering end as those black edges of the frame slowly creep back in, once again jailing these characters within Dolan’s restrictive aspect ratio.

It is a wonder that Dolan is able to find fresh life in such overplayed songs as Wonderwall by Oasis and Eiffel 65’s Blue, and yet in using cultural touchstones for his soundtrack, Steve’s journey is grounded in a shared experience understood by teenagers between the 1990s and present day. As much as Dolan has shied away from audiences noting how Mommy’s aspect ratio and poppy aesthetic evoke Instagram videos, it is hard not to draw the social media comparison in his stylish depiction of Steve’s volatile journey. But of course, this film is far more artistically rich and moving than anything one might find scrolling through content feeds, as Dolan finds both profound joy and grief in the difficult, strained relationship between a mother and son who can’t quite find the long-lasting happiness they once believed was possible.

Dolan is a magnificent editor on top of everything else, drawing out some beautiful slow-motion photography in musical montages.

Mommy is available to stream on Stan, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

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