I was hoping to see Mommy at this year’s VIFF. It was one of those films I really wanted to see. Unfortunately there was only one showing–I think it was the only film that had a single showing– and this was not open to volunteers and tickets sold out days before. Fortunately I was able to see it when it came out in theatres shortly after. I’m very glad I did.
The film begins telling us it’s 2105 and Canada is under a newly elected administration that has passed a controversial new law. The law states that government agencies can now decide the fate of a minor with mental conditions and the parent has no control over it which includes transporting them to hospitals and facilities.
Diane ‘Die’ Despres, a 46 year-old widow of three years has been given the news. Her 16 year-old son Steve, an ADHD child with a history of violent behavior, has been sent to a long list of list of juvenile institutions over the years. His violent behavior has gotten him constantly kicked out and transferred to the next. However his actions at his most recent institution– setting fire to the cafeteria which left one boy badly burned– led to the final straw: transfer to a more restrictive detention centre where she knows he’ll never be rehabilitated. She goes against all judgment and takes Steve into her own hands.
Die has to be a toughy with Steve if she wants to make this work all on her own. She’s even willing to risk losing her job to keep Steve from the alternative, which does happen. She knows it will be very hard to keep Steve because of his behavior and it’s his first violent outburst since taking him on that’s her first test. She stops him by throwing a bookcase on him and that leads to Steve having a gash. She can’t take him to a hospital but she finds help from Kyla, a neighbor from across the street who’s always been so private and only seen with her husband and children. She gives Steve the stitches.
Die is impressed with Kyla’s nursing skills. The three form a friendship that’s very close as they do many things together. Kyla is especially beneficial as she’s a nurse who knows how to handle the behavior of people with ADHD like Steve. The three of them share many good times together. Die is finally smiling and happy, Steve is able to show off his enthusiasm and a passion for life, and Kyla is able to come out of her shell. Die is even impressed with how she knows how to handle Steve. She doesn’t have to do this alone. However all three know that they have to keep this top secret. Die even meets with a lawyer to work on their case against the institution. It appears to look good until Steve is mocked at a bar during karaoke night. he becomes violent and threatens the heckler with a broken beer bottle. Steve even gives a further outburst towards the lawyer which causes the lawyer to drop the two.
Despite it all, the three continue on even after Die is served. She is given the warning to give Steve up or she will be charged. The three hope to keep things hidden and things continue to go well until Steve tries to slit his wrist in a store. That was the final straw. Die can’t take it anymore and has to take Steve to the institution. Changes also come for Kyla as her husband has a job in Toronto. The film does end not how one would expect.
Once again this is another entertaining film from Dolan. Like many of his films, it gives a lot of focus on the madness of his protagonist’s minds. However this is not just simply that. This is also a focus on the protagonist’s behavior problems associated with the mental condition. It gives some good focus on the ‘wild imagination’ associated with people with ADHD, especially in scenes with Steve having fun in the parking lot and skateboarding feeling free. However it also focuses on behavior problems where Steve gets dangerously violent with his mother, verbally abusive with the lawyer who’s supposed to help the two out, impulsively suicidal in the store and even shows the lack of sexual restraint when Steve tries to come on to Kyla. The character of Steve does a good display of showing the positive side of ADHD but also its weaknesses, especially how many young people act like they don’t know their boundaries. We’re already made aware of the fire Steve set which left another teen badly burned at the beginning. However it’s in the film we get a better sense of the condition and a young person’s behavior patterns from sweet and loving to ruthless and nasty.
The film is also about a mother’s love for such a child and how it’s tested. I remember reading a book on parenting teenagers and it said a sentence that really stuck in my head: “If you can handle a teen with ADHD, you can handle any kid.” We know how much Die loves Steve to the point she’s willing to break the law to keep him. That opening scene when she unapologetically barges into Steve’s bedroom to wake him up even while she catches him masturbating already showed that she’s a tough-as-nails mother. However there’s no doubt that her love for him will be put to the test big time. The story shows the trials Die has to go to in order to keep Steve from his violent outbursts to the point of even throwing a bookcase on him. The story also shows how much sacrifice Die has to deal with to keep Steve such as losing her job and losing the lawyer that can help the two win the case. The story even shows how even the toughest of mothers like Die can just have enough of it all and turn Steve in.
It’s not even strictly about ADHD and a mother’s love. It’s also about the trio of a friendship. Kyla’s presence is also very vital as she is one of the few adults who know how to deal with Steve and she becomes Die’s first friend since the death. And to think Kyla was simply a loner wife and mother before the two met her. The film makes for a fascinating friendship between the three.
Interesting thing about this is that the story is in the near future but by a single year and talks of a law passed by the newly elected administration. The funny thing is that most Canadians, especially British Columbians, would expect a law like that to be passed by our current administration. Okay, enough of that. Back to focusing on the film, the one weakness about the film is that it gets us wrapped up in the story to the point we forget about this law that threatens to tear the two apart. And we’re only reminded of it near the end. I’m sure the law has a lot to do with Die keeping Steve to herself and Kyla keeping things hidden but the story makes it so easy to forget.
Once again, this is another triumph for Quebec wunderkind Xavier Dolan. I still remember five years ago when he burst on the scene as a 20 year-old with I Killed My Mother and caught loads of attention at that year’s Cannes. I saw it. Excellent film. Dolan has since proved he’s no one-trick-pony as he has delivered other consistent films like 2010’s Heartbeats, last year’s Tom At The Farm and this film. It’s no wonder he’s become all the buzz at Cannes these past few years and has even caught the attention of Brad Pitt. However this is something unique as this is the first Dolan film where Xavier does not act at all in it. It’s a very good film and another accomplishment from Xavier.
The funny thing about this film is that there have been times I wanted to compare it to his breakthrough film I Killed My Mother. It’s not an easy thing to do as both have a lot of things in common. I do admit that I Killed my Mother is still my favorite film from Dolan. Also looking back, I’ve been trying to see if Mommy shows a filmmaking maturity in Dolan in the five years since. It was very hard to pinpoint out in all the retrospective thinking I’ve been doing. Mind you for those who saw I Killed My Mother, I’m sure you were all surprised how well-directed it was. It easy makes you forget it was done by a 20 year-old.
Actually there were some differences and even some challenges between the two. And not simply because Xavier doesn’t act here. First was creating a story involving a character with a common mental condition. Dolan had to know it inside out and deliver a character that displayed those traits but didn’t come across as insulting to those that had it. Another difference was the focus of a teen boy’s heterosexual feelings. Most of Dolan’s films have focused on homosexuality. And another trait of the movie was Dolan trying to portray the essence of being a teenager even as Dolan was 24 at the time of making the film. Dolan shows she still hasn’t forgotten that essence five years later.
Antoine-Olivier Pilon did an excellent performance with a character very complex. It’s good to see someone that young do a great acting job. However Anne Dorval was the standout of the film. She also delivered well as a mother who is easily tested despite her rebel side. Suzanne Clement is also excellent as the friend who comes out of her shell. The three of them together had the right chemistry to make the film work. Even the minor characters added to the movie. Like Kyla’s husband added to it as one who could say a lot without speaking a word. The mix of music in the film was an excellent mix of common hits and neo-classical compositions and it fit the film well.
Mommy has already won some good accolades. It was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and won the Prix du Jury. It even won awards at a Francophone film festival in Namur, Belgium and has made almost $3 million at box offices around the world. It’s also Canada’s official entry in the Best Foreign language Film Category for this year’s Oscars.
Mommy also further confirms my belief about the Canadian motion picture system. For those who don’t know my belief about it, my belief is there are two different types of movies coming from Canada: the films from Quebec and the films from English Canada. The films from Quebec have their own distinct style and consistently display creativity and professionalism. The directors themselves have gained universal recognition and even won awards including an Oscar. The films from English Canada are also professional lack the eye-catching ability of Quebec and have to do lots of effort in order to win attention even in Canada. There isn’t even much of a legacy for the films of English Canada. I believe Mommy further adds to the legacy of Quebec filmmaking and further proves the films of English Canada have a lot of catching up to do.
Mommy is another accomplishment for Xavier Dolan. It quite possibly even makes him the biggest ‘young gun’ director in the world right now. Twenty-five years old and this is his fifth critically-renowned film. I can’t think of another young gun with as much accomplishments right now.