I had a really strange feeling while I was watching ‘I Killed My Mother’ this morning. I have a strong feeling that, had I seen this back in 2009, I would have raved it to high heavens. Unfortunately, the film was not released stateside until last year and so I was not able to see it until now. So, instead of seeing this when it was made (and raved) I had to wait until after I had seen Dolan’s second and third films. Looking at a filmmaker’s roots can be a really informative activity. It helps you to see where that director came from and see the growth they have made over the course of their career. It’s strange to talk about Xavier Dolan’s career as if it were miles long, since he’s only made four films (‘Tom at the Farm’ has not been released stateside yet), but watching ‘I Killed My Mother’ within the same year as I saw ‘Laurence Anyways’ shows SO MUCH growth it is almost as if he has been making films for years.
Dolan has a direct style and signature way of presenting his material. This can be distracting when he doesn’t know when to rein it in. ‘Laurence Anyways’ was such a beautiful example of using your visual style as a key plot devise, but allowing yourself to pull back in order to progress your story properly. It was effortlessly restrained.
‘I Killed My Mother’ has no restraint.
Like I said, had I seen this back when it was released, before Dolan perfected his style, I think I would have loved this so much more. I probably would have been raving the potential that he has as a filmmaker and truly lauding his direct and brash ability to portray harsh realities with such graceful beauty. Watching this through eyes that are already accustomed to Dolan’s more polished work has me noticing every flaw instead of basking in the unfiltered glory of this directorial debut.
It’s really hard to believe that this is Dolan’s FIRST film, for it is already so specific, so identifiable. He knows who he is as a storyteller, and that alone is the ultimate refreshment.
‘I Killed My Mother’ is a semi-autobiographical account of Dolan’s life. The story centers on a sixteen year old boy named Hubert who lives with him mother Chantale. They fight ALL THE TIME. It doesn’t help that Hubert is hiding the fact that he is gay from his mother and is flunking out at school. Unable to communicate, the two are always at odds until Chantale finally reaches a breaking point and sends Hubert off to boarding school. Through the love of others (namely his boyfriend, Antonin and his teacher, Julie), Hubert starts to put the pieces of his life together, starting with his own identity and finally leading him to a reconciliation of sorts with his mother, who is just trying to do her best while processing the whole thing herself.
I once had a friend, who I sadly don’t speak to anymore, who told me a story once about his ‘coming out’ to his mother. He told me about sitting on her bed late at night when he was about fifteen and breaking down, thinking that she was going to hate him. Instead, she held his head in her lap and stroked his hair while he cried and cried and he said that it was the closest he had ever felt to her. Like I said, we don’t speak anymore (which I am sadly to blame for and I resent myself for it) and this made me ache inside, especially when I heard that his mother passed away last year. While watching this film today I was reminded of him and his mother and the stories I had heard of their relationship, and I have to admit, I felt it.
As a tale of self-discovery, this is exceptional. Dolan’s screenplay, which he reportedly wrote at sixteen, is heartbreaking. His directorial decisions are distinct and serve as a foreshadowing of the remarkable director he’d become. Sadly, it is his distinct vision that, at times, clouds the good he’s doing here. For the first half of ‘I Killed My Mother’, the film feels like a Pedro Almodovar soap opera with Wes Anderson production values and Terence Malick stylized framing. This may sound like a good thing, but it is ultimately too much. Dolan had so many ideas that he wasn’t sure how to express them without overcrowding his message. Thankfully, as the film progresses, he starts to pick away at the outlandishness of it all and deliver a very astute and powerful finale (that does last a few scenes too long, to be honest).
Dolan’s film is a brave one. His story is a hard one to watch in parts because it is so honest. I would love to know what this film would look like if 2013 Dolan directed it.
I have a feeling it would be a masterpiece.
I give this a B-. I wish that it was a little more even throughout, tonally, but Dolan showed so much promise right out the gate.