The 26-year-old Quebecois wunderkind is back with his fifth, Cannes Jury Prize-winning feature film.
April 17, 2015
At 25 years of age, French-Canadian director and professional overachiever Xavier Dolan has been touted by cinephiles as the next great auteur — an antidote to a global film industry bloated with high-budget, low IQ franchises. Once a child actor, Dolan's fifth film, Mommy, won some insanely high praise and the Jury Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival.
In vivid colours and an Instgram-like 1:1 ratio, Mommy declares its arrival as loudly as its attention-seeking protagonist, Steve. An at-risk 15-year-old emblematic of Quebec’s forgotten underclass, Steve (a hyper-charismatic Antoine-Olivier Pilon) has been expelled from his disciplinarian boarding school. His young, widowed mum, Die (Anne Dorval), is just as funny and street-smart and gutsy as her son, but ill-equipped to deal with his angry delinquency.
Steve seems to get back on track thanks to a conveniently kindly neighbour who, despite her own barely discussed traumas, begins tutoring and putting boundaries on him, but begins to stray once again. Rather than frame these social-issue themes in a gritty, crime-flecked drama, Dolan opts for a set of stylish character studies about the volatile mother-son relationship, positioning his actors boldly in the middle of the square screen and pushing them to noisy, dramatic limits.
The film is much less innovative than its stylistic choices promise, however, because it swerves towards predictably tragic plot points that we, as viewers, have learned to spot from sitcoms and indie dramas. ‘Indie’ has become a genre in its own right rather than a way of working outside the studio systems. The checklist for indie filmmakers working towards that sought-after ‘quirky charm’ seems to include an over- or under-saturated colour palette, blurry soft-focus camera work, a cast of loveable yet flawed characters (including a friendly stranger), a slowly revealed tragic backstory, a shot at redemption against hardship, a lip-synching musical sequence, a domestic disturbance, an ambiguous ending and so on. Like the filmmakers of the recent Skeleton Twins and Kumiko: Treasure Hunter, Dolan wilfully checks all these boxes. It’s all about self-conscious style over substance, perhaps to compensate for an underwritten script that floats slackly over two hours.
Like so much cinema, Mommy functions at a gut level — you either instinctively get it or you don't, which makes it inexplicably polarising. Whether you find the dialogue and performances accurate or OTT, the characters unbearably stereotypical or eye-openingly new, all comes down to your personal taste. From everything from the blaring musical choices (supposedly a '90s mixtape Steve's father made) to an emotional daydream sequence, this is showy filmmaking. Dolan has a tendency to push his actors to broad, melodramatic extremes to the point where I sometimes felt I was watching a Francophone Neighbours.
Despite all the distractions, Mommy feels alive and young. There’s something really interesting and energetic going on here — a director not working on autopilot, turning over big passions at high speed and with a great love of cinema. As to whether or not it amounts to much more than a French-Canadian, ADHD-style Instagram film, well, I’m unconvinced, but fascinated as to the director’s next moves.