Being a parent sucks.
I don’t even know if there are words that can fully explain all the ‘meanings’ in that statement I just made, but really, it truly sucks. It’s the hardest, most heartbreaking, completely emotionally obliterating thing that anyone can go through, but the biggest reason it sucks is the fact that you asked for it. You wake up every single day asking for more because the moment those kids are no longer in your life is the moment you just…die.
‘Mommy’ tells the story of Die, or Diane, a single mother (her husband died three years ago) who loves her son, Steve, deeply. She is foul-mouthed trailer-trash with a biting temper and a lack of a filter of any kind, but she loves her son, despite his flaws. You see, Steve has problems. When ‘Mommy’ starts, we are informed that Steve is being kicked out of a detention center for setting the cafeteria on fire, brutally injuring another ‘inmate’. Steve has ADHD, but a very severe kind that leads to extremely violent and uncontrollable outbursts. When we meet Steve, he shows no signs of remorse for his actions, which sent another kid to the hospital with possible third-degree burns. Instead, he cursing at and physically assaulting the guards. When he leaves with his mother by his side, it’s apparently he views her more like a chum, a pal, than an authority figure. He’s joking with her and cursing at her and despite the nature of their relationship, all you see is love. She loves him, deeply, and he loves her, deeply. They just have a non-traditional way of showing it.
Then something happens that changes the fabric of the film we think we’re watching. Steve comes home baring gifts for his mother, and his mother is immediately skeptical as to how he attained those gifts, and after accusing him of stealing, Steve loses it. Within seconds we see all the glee and jovial charisma that brushed Steve’s face upon handing his mother her new necklace fade away to expose a intense defensiveness that explodes in the form of brute force and complete domination over his mother. He beckons her to hit him. He hits himself, thrusting his body towards her, transforming into an animal, screaming at her and practically chasing her through the house, threatening her with physical violence.
In this moment, we understand Die’s life, and we understand more fully her love.
‘Mommy’ is a hard film to watch, at least for me it was. I feel like a broken record when I say this, because I know that I’ve mentioned this a few times, but being a parent changes the way that you look at things, the way you feel things. You look at things from the perspective of a parent and you can feel internally every emotion, every feeling that that parent is bound to be going through. It doesn’t hurt that Anne Dorval delivers a tremendous performance as the conflicted Die, but regardless of her strength in conveying those feelings, as a parent we watch and develop our own. Watching Die observe her son was one of the most heartbreaking cinematic moments for me in quite some time. The way that she so earnestly desires for nothing but Steve’s happiness, the way she selflessly gives of herself and sacrifices her own wellbeing is so reaching, so captivating. She’s a pill, and she parents in a way that many will find questionable or even distasteful and yet no one can tell you how to love your child, you just do, and in your own way, and in the way that you, as a parent, feel is best for that child. No parent wishes for a child with special needs, whatever those needs turn out to be, but it happens, and you can either coil back in fear or you can meet those needs head on, and while Die may seem, to the critical observer, to be irresponsible, she knows her son and she is doing her very best, believe me.
There is a moment when Die explains a parent’s love to her son. She tells him that a parent never wakes up one day not loving their child. She tells him that it is the other way around; that the child will start to love the parent less and less, but that a parent’s love only grows.
When she said those words, my heart broke.
‘Mommy’ illustrates beautifully the harsh reality of coming to terms with the real needs of a child and not merely what you want them to need. As Die strives to be everything Steve needs, to mend his every wound, to fight his every battle, she eventually has to come face to face with the fact that she cannot do this alone, and even as she receives help and even a sense of balance and stability from an unlikely friendship with her neighbor, Kyla (another beautifully woven example of a mother trying her hardest to be what she needs to be), the writing is on the wall from the moment we adjust to the aspect ratio; this is a war Die can’t win.
As Die’s worldview expands, her innermost desires for her life, for her son, start to blossom in her mind, her crushing reality flitters away and her heart is full and, as an audience, we become a part of her dream world where everything is right, where everything is as every parent wishes it would be; and then she comes to her senses and everything is stripped away from her and a part of you, as a sharer in her journey, dies.
I don’t want to paint ‘Mommy’ as a soul crushing experience, even though a part of my soul has been literally crushed, because the ending note to ‘Mommy’ is one of such remarkably exposed and understood parental love that it is almost, as Die puts it herself, hopeful. As Steve’s actions place him at risk of hurting himself (notice how Die never contemplates drastic measures when the only person at risk was herself), Die makes decisions that conflict with her own personal wants. She has to learn to let go, and in the process she has to believe that here is hope, that her son will one day find the freedom, not mere physical freedom but emotional freedom, that he so richly deserves. She has to believe that her choices are giving him the best possible chance at a healthy, productive and happy future, no matter how much pain he, and she, are going through at the present moment.
She has to have hope, as does every parent, hope that they are doing the right thing.
Any true great depiction of an artistic portrait of real life needs to have every facet working in harmony in order to achieve that overall sense of true, brutal honesty. Xavier Dolan is fortunate that he had an incredible team working under his wing, giving him exactly what he needed to make this portrait perfect. His actors, all of them, deliver such richly layered performances, especially his two leads. Dorval’s exploration of a mother’s love is so heartbreakingly honest and grounded. There are moments where she is just watching Steve, watching him interact with Kyla, watching him exude this happiness, and we see this undeniable calm rush over her face. She finds a moment of peace in knowing that he is, for the moment, happy. That is what it’s like to be a parent. I know that feeling so well. Clement is remarkable here as well, finding so many nuances within the fabric of Kayla’s situation. We are never given the whole backstory for Kyla, but in the bits and pieces we gather from the details that Dolan puts into place and the layers Clement finds in every single breath she takes we are given a story that feels whole, feels complete.
But, for me, the performance of this film belongs to Antoine-Olivier Pilon. At just seventeen years old, Pilon delivers the most complex, organic, moving and brutally honest character portrait of the decade. This was such a difficult performance to pull off, one that really needed the right touches to steer it clear of a gimmick, and Pilon found all of these. He makes everything feel so grounded in this sense of absolute reality that you feel his every tonal shift. He’s so natural. His furious rages, his tactless cackling, his moody pouting, his reckless abandon, his overt happiness, his repressed emotions, his fear, his pain, his overflowing love; NAIL ON EVERY HEAD! There is one moment in particular, when his obnoxious and overbearing behavior becomes too much for Kyla to take and she pounces on him, berates him, controls him. When we see him, a puddle of tears on the floor, urine staining his pants, fear induced anger and gutted sadness dripping from his face, we are torn apart. I physically reacted to this moment, my stomach contracting I was in so much distress over the reality of his situation, his daily struggle.
But it’s not just about the performances, for Dolan and his technical team deliver tremendously as well. From the beautiful score from Noia (which is used in one of the most stunning ways possible during the aforementioned ‘fantasy’ scene) to the intentional cinematography from Andre Turpin, ‘Mommy’ is a stunning film from start to finish. The decision to restrict the audience’s view of everything through the use of a boxed in format makes itself such a spectacular facet of the film, and the moment it becomes clear as to WHY it’s there is a moment that will take your breath away.
Xavier Dolan is a name that I have championed a lot. I was nothing but gushing praise the minute I saw ‘Laurence Anyways’, a film that I feel is one of the greatest explorations of identity ever depicted on film. ‘Mommy’, believe it or not, is an even greater film. The maturity that Dolan expresses here as a filmmaker is remarkable. He has been accused of lavishly beating a point to death with his visual cues and extreme symbolism. I have never really taken issue with this (although I found it distracting in his debut film, ‘I Killed My Mother’), but I have understood to an extent the issue that was taken with it. ‘Mommy’ is a perfect example of a director with undeniable talent finding a way to weed through his every idea and intention to find a perfectly balanced way to express himself articulately to an audience without losing the very thing that makes him unique. The rush of symbolism and visual expressiveness is there, but in a more contained and appropriate capacity and his ability to depict tones through his exploration of his characters is just uncanny.
The film takes on a life so fluidly connected to the state of his characters, and this is such an intentional and painfully moving asset to this brilliantly told story. And, while some have criticized Dolan’s use of music within the film, I have to come to its defense. Music is such an important medium for expression and emotional transference, and using it in such a specific and intentional way, like Dolan does here, is so rewarding. The fact that these songs all carry the weight of meaning, both literal and figurative (they represent a time in Steve’s life when he was happy and free/the songs obviously play to the film’s themes in an intentionally obvious manner), adds to the impact of each scene, each moment.
‘Mommy’ is an eye-opener. It’s a film that proves the truth in that statement ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’, because it forces us to see the reality of life outside of the one we live. As humans, it is so easy for us to pass judgment on others, to look at another’s situation and think that we know more than we do. We do it all the time. Heck, even I do it. You walk through the supermarket and you see a parent struggling with an unruly kid and you hear those words and you see those tears and you think to yourself “what an awful parent” or “control your kid” or “what a brat” and yet, you don’t know what happens behind closed doors; you don’t know their reality. Films like ‘Mommy’ help us to appreciate, just a little better, that which we don’t know, and hope to never know.
So now comes the hard part, summing everything up. How do you close out a review of a film that you feel so passionately about? How can you justify the excessive amounts of hyperbole you just spewed all over the page? I’ve not been shy about my love for Dolan’s work and his career, and so my adoration of this film probably comes as no surprise. I also think that I’ve proven myself balanced with regards to his work, as I’ve voiced concerns with some of his previous work (I gave ‘I Killed My Mother’ a B- and ‘Tom at the Farm’ a B+) so I know his every work isn’t perfect.
‘Mommy’ is perfect. It truly is. That’s the best way that I can think of to sum this up. Perfect.