Wednesday, February 18, 2015

"We still love each other, right?"


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.

A+

46 comments:

  1. Great review! I thought it would take ages to read but no, you have very clearly said everything needed to be said about this film. Of course, I saw it in a different light. I'm not a parent, probably never will be and so your angle was really illuminating.
    I was just amazed by how immersive an experience it was to watch this film. It was like a living thing and everything from the way it's shot to the acting to the story to the music just makes you feel that way, and I didn't know films could do that. It's definitely one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. I don't know if it is perfect (need to rewatch it once before deciding on that) but it's certainly great.

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    1. Yeah, I know it's a bit long, but every time I thought I was finished, I remembered something else I wanted to say.

      The best thing about art is that we all respond to it differently depending on our personal situation, and we can all draw from different aspects of art, and when we can do that it makes that art universal.

      I'm so glad that Dolan's films do that.

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  2. Wow! This sounds seriously depressing ... and gorgeous. I'll add it to my list. Beautiful review ... I love this: " ‘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." That speaks volumes. If a film can actually capture this, it is not to be missed.

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    1. Oh, it captures is to tragically well. I hope you get a chance to see it. This is such a stunning work...absolutely stunning!

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  3. Beautiful review! I definitely want to see this, it sounds so intriguing.

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    1. I hope you do. US distribution SUCKS for Dolan's films, but I'm hoping that the raves and accolades this film has received will help inch it closer to a respectable US DVD release date.

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  4. Just outstanding, man! I have heard very little about this movie, but I am definitely seeking it out now.

    I love when a movie hits you at just the right time, in just the right ways. It happens so very rarely. This seems like an interesting character study, and, as someone who deals with ADHD 13-year-olds all day long, I can tell you, it is often heartbreaking. I am not a parent yet, so I can't speak with any authority, but we teachers are always quick to be those people who are all like, "Discipline your kids at home!" and on and on. But you're right when you say, we just don't know the dynamic. My wife gets on to me for complaining about these kinds of kids (it's so easy to do), but, for many kids, these erratic behaviors are so deeply ingrained and so openly accepted at home that school is almost impossible. I don't know. It's sad.

    Anyway, I am really looking forward to seeing this. How do I see it? It is streaming or on Bluray? I haven't seen it pop up in my arthouse place.

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    1. Thanks, buddy!

      I can imagine that working with these kids on a daily basis can be draining, but hopefully a film like 'Mommy' can help put some of those antics into perspective. This was such an eye opening experience for me. I've been around kids with these kinds of problems all my life, but I've never really seen it from this angle.

      I feel changed.

      As far as finding this film, I'm not sure when or how you will. I was blessed to have this hit my local art house theater, and so I jumped at the chance to see it, but Dolan's films have had a shitty track record with getting US releases, so I'm not sure when it'll hit DVD. That being said, I'm sure by year's end it'll be available somewhere, even if it's just a mere stream somewhere.

      If this hits any theater near you, RUN TO IT!

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  5. I've heard big things about this film and may have to search it out. It does sound like an intensely difficult watch and your points about parental perspectives is absolutely valid.

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    1. Thanks Keith. I hope you can find this one. It's so hard to watch, but it's such a richly rewarding cinematic experience.

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  6. I'm gonna read it after I saw the film but I'm super hyped now. And yey you finally managed to see something before I did! but I did see the cinematic masterpiece that was Fifty Shades of Grey last night..so.... :)

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    1. OMG! I just read your review for 50 Shades! Hilarious. I almost really want to see it now.

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    2. You definitely should. I haven't laughed this hard during unintentional comedy since The Wicker Man

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    3. Well, my wife sure wants to see it (for reasons I'm not so sure of) so I'm sure I'll see it eventually :-P

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  7. I have heard of this film but knew almost nothing about it. You gave an excellent review and it sounds like it hit close to home. My hubby has severe ADHD and was a "problem" child but he had the misfortune of having a horrible father. He is so classic in ADHD I have to laugh with his rants but he a beautiful man with a deep and tender heart. It will be interesting to see this film with my hubby

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    1. I'm very interested to hear your thoughts (and your husband's) after you get a chance to see this one. It's such a beautifully detailed piece, but I'd love to hear views from the perspective of someone who has experienced, to a deeper degree, the health issues represented here.

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  8. Wonderful review! This sounds so honest, so brutal, and I LOVE films with that kind of emotional intensity. It's coming out on DVD in Canada on March 17, so I'll get an import and watch it within the next few weeks. :)

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    1. MY GOD, YES!!!! I cannot wait to hear what you think. TWEET ME IMMEDIATELY!!!

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  9. Awesome review! see this is exactly why you could write about this one so much and I couldn't,, which is the reason I probably won't. I'm not a mother nor do I think I particularly want to be. Being a parent automatically made you connect and understand here, which makes this movie very personal to you. That's like me and Black Swan, a film that I'm sure you couldn't understand on the same levels I did, much like I just couldn't with Mommy.

    I did find the script to be a bit wobbly and the whole character of Kyla didn't impress me, nor would I agree with your very high praise of the lead actor, but Dorval was really wonderful and I'm very impressed with the fact that Dolan at such a young age not only is such a competent director - also I loved his selection of music - but could show something as foreign to 25 year old male as the concept of being a mother so well. That fantasy sequence really made me feel like a mother, especially those shots of the little baby. I loathed that heartbreak and helplessness.

    "from the beautiful score from Noia " - wasn't that piece in fantasy sequence not original score? I didn't even think this had original score, I thought it was just a compilation

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    1. Thanks Sati! Yeah, there are some films that just find a place in your heart that is special, and for me, this was that film. Dolan's accomplishments at such a young age defy my comprehension...I just don't get it. It's incredible.

      And, yes, the fantasy sequence uses that track 'Experience', and I've been meaning to amend this review. When I first saw the film, I didn't know. I wrote this the week I saw it, and when I checked IMDB it said that the score was composed by Noia, so I assumed that that piece of music was the score...and then later I was informed it was not.

      This soundtrack is just everything though, isn't it! I don't know if you saw the piece I wrote on the use of music within his films, but this particular soundtrack is so strong. Like I said on Twitter, I have this on my iPod and I jog to it and every song brings back distinct memories of moments in this film. These songs become part of the fabric of this film...it's just so beautifully woven!

      Thanks for coming back now that you've seen it for yourself :-D

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    2. I'm gonna check that music post soon, I just want to see more of his films first. He seems to like 90's music too, him and me are the same age and I just loved the choices in Mommy because those were the songs I grew up with, he must have too

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    3. Yes, that soundtrack hit me in very nostalgic spots because I was a teenager and those were the songs I listened to in my car, with my girlfriend, with my buddies, just hanging out...and I have a lot of personal memories associated with songs like 'Building a Mystery' and 'Colorblind' and 'On Ne Change Pas' and 'Wonderwall' and it helped me connect even deeper with Dolan's message.

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  10. Great review Andrew. You've said it all.

    We don't deserve Dolan and the fact that some critics have been so antagonistic towards his brilliant stylistic choices in this film is proof of that. That fantasy sequence before the end is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. This dude is on his way to becoming one of the all-time greats. Such a unique voice.

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    1. You are so right. He has a very unique voice, and one that we are privileged to experience.

      UGH, that fantasy sequence...just WOW!

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  11. Mommy is fantastic. I now understand the image from the top.

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    1. I'm so glad you saw this, and loved it! And yes, after seeing the movie I couldn't help but place that image as my site's banner. This is probably my favorite film of all time.

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  12. Ughh, what a great review! Totally agree with everything. Especially that the film belongs to Antoine-Olivier Pilon. I find it interesting that some people consider him supporting when I 100% believe he is a lead. What do you think?

    " 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."

    I agree. Very moving.

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    1. Yeah, I don't buy the Supporting placement at all. He's 100% Lead. It's the story of a mother and her son, with equal attention given to both, right down to the end.

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  13. This is a beautiful review. It's really nice hearing about it from the perspective of a parent. I am playing that ending over and over in my head. That is the only way that movie could have ended. Perfect. Also, Dolan's use of music! He understands how to use music to add a whole other dimension to a scene.

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    1. Yeah, the music is so key. I also really love that ending as well...it was just such a perfect way to close because it showed the depth of love Die had for Steve...just...UGH!

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  14. Having now seen this. I have to say that this is truly a grand achievement. It wasn't easy to watch as I was able to watch this on TV (through VOD) rather than on a laptop as I was engrossed by it. Even Dolan's approach to framing. It is truly a work of art and it's currently in my top 5 films of 2014 and in my WIP list of the best films of 2000-2015.

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    1. Yes! Such a grand achievement. This is certainly Dolan's most directorly film too...all of his touches make sense within the fabric of the film and he creates something truly breathtaking.

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  15. Again, love your passion for this movie. It really is excellent, but not without issues. I thought Pilon was really good, but nowhere near as good as Dorval. Pilon's role had the benefit of allowing him to physically act out, making it automatically more showy. Despite her loose tongue and sailor's vocabulary, Diane was a much more subtle, restrained character. She conveys so much without the aid of being afforded any moments of unbridled passion, She is always guarded, yet still so expressive. That's a far more impressive feat, at least in my eyes.

    I do love the use of music here, especially during the fantasy sequence. That is a tremendous little bit of film making, right there. To follow it up with that next scene is just flat-out brave because it totally inverts the order most movies do this sort of thing. However, I hated the games Dolan plays with the aspect ratio. It was over the top and punishing to the viewer, not nearly as effective a symbol as he wanted it to be because it was so distracting. It shows me that he has one of the same issues as my own personal favorite director, Spike Lee. Both are gifted, but occasionally let showing off those gifts get in the way of the movie. They'll apply their talents to some sledgehammer of symbolism that tells the audience how they should feel instead of showing them. One of Lee's best/worst examples is the closing moments of He Got Game (SPOILER ALERT). Denzel's character, the father of a superstar basketball player, has returned to prison. While shooting hoops on the yard, he throws a basketball over the prison wall that then lands hundreds of miles away inside an arena in the hands of his son. It was Lee yelling at his audience "Look, they have fixed their relationship!" It's a point we fully grasp without that bit of unnecessary assistance. In the case of Mommy, I feel Dolan uses the aspect ratio to yell at me "Look, Steve and Diane are trapped in a vicious cycle in this itty bitty world!" It's something the content of the movie makes perfectly clear without making me feel like half the picture is missing.

    Hope I don't sound too negative, because I really do like this movie. I'm just explaining my gripes with it. I also recognize that Dolan is a director with a vision and an important voice. I look forward to going through his filmography, including whatever he has for us in the future.

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    1. Thanks Wendell. You're so right about Dorval. I may have preferred Pilon, but that takes nothing away with how I felt about Dorval. She was remarkable.

      I can see what you are saying. The aspect ratio was a gimmick, for sure, but for me it worked. I feel like it was gimmick with substance, and I can get behind that 100%...and it never took anything away for me...it only added, especially in those instances where the ratio widens and the film breathes.

      UGH...don't even get me started on that fantasy sequence. TEARS!!!!

      I hope you dig further into Dolan's work. It's a goldmine of greatness.

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  16. Such a great, thorough review. Its great to read something about thius movie from a parent. I'm not a parent but a son who used to have a very volatile relationship with my mother and this movie hit me haaaard. The way Steve just flips when his mother accuses him of stealing like you said... god I saw myself, that was what I used to be like.

    I now really wanna watch it again now, it resonates with me so closely.

    I still don't like the 1:1 ratio though! ;P

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    1. Thanks Jordan! I felt like the way Dolan (and Pilon and Dorval) work this relationship was just so spectacularly honest...just brutal and like nothing I've seen before.

      It's something special when we can connect with a film on such a personal level. Thanks for sharing your connection with me!

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  17. Sheesh. I'd forgotten that I'd already read and commented on this review. My memory is crap.

    This is a beautiful review! You really knocked it out of the ballpark here. This is a gorgeous film, especially Anne Dorval's performance.Oh hell, Pilon was just as good.

    "I love what you said here: it forces us to see the reality of life outside of the one we live." That's one of the reasons I love literature and film so much.

    I also love movies that make me connect with someone my initial instinct might have been to dismiss. That's one of the reasons I like British social realism. And this is one of those movies. You described the character of the mom perfectly -- white trash, no filter. But I kind of loved her by the end.

    Oh, and this: "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." Perfect. That almost made me cry. And that's one of the things I want to write about, but I'm not sure I'm up to it. :-)

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    1. Yeah, that whole finale was so hard for me to take...like, it crushed me, but it was such an important lesson to make and take in and I applaud Dolan for having the ability to make it connect in such a way.

      UGH, I can feel the tears already.

      I know that this is hard for you to write about, and I completely respect that, but if you ever feel like you can, I'd love to read your thoughts because it appears that this film hit some very personal places for you, and that is such a beautiful thing. It is within those personal places that I always feel the best writing (and discussion) comes from, and so I'm very interested to know why this affected you as it did.

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    2. Thanks. :-) I'll keep a Mommy review on the table. I just need to mull over what's O.K. to talk about on a blog -- right out in public -- especially since I'm no longer using a pen name. :-)

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    3. Oh, and I meant that this theme -- "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." -- is one of the things I want to write about in my fiction. I'm just not sure I'm quite ready. :-)

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    4. Oh, I completely understand, trust me. Blogging is a wonderful outlet, but I purposefully use a pen name so that I can write about everything I want to. If I used my real name, I probably wouldn't blog.

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    5. Speaking of fan fiction...we should talk.

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    6. I never knew Andrew Ellington wasn't your actual name. Not that it matters, I guess. :-)

      Fan fiction?? You have piqued my curiosity. :-) Feel free to e-mail me if you're so inclined stephanie@theeclecticscribe.com

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