How much must a parent give to a child before they are allowed to give up? That is the brutal question twenty-five year old director Xavier Dolan seeks to answer in his troubling work, Mommy. The film tells the story of Die (Anne Dorval), a single mother whose son, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), has ADHD, is prone to violent rage as well as antisocial behaviour. While Die struggles to stay financially afloat and keep her son out of the justice system, their depressed neighbour Kyla (Suzanne Clément) gradually becomes intertwined with their family life.
Dolan’s direction of these three extraordinary actors is peerless. Dorval is riveting as Die, a fast-talking bundle of optimism, whose French is as colourful as her clothes. Does she understand French? Will she be able to take responsibility for her son? a state official asks. “Sceptics will be proven wrong”, she immediately retorts.
Antoine-Olivier Pilon is utterly convincing as Steve, as unpredictable and dangerous as he is poignant. His vulnerabilities and his rudeness he lays bare on equal terms, whether it is in inappropriately touching all the women in his life, or within moments transmuting from childish fear into a physical threat to others.
Clément is a well assembled puzzle. Her character struggles to speak, smiles nervously, but seems unfazed by the family’s dysfunctional teenager and more comfortable in his presence than that of her own daughter. She barely communicates it in words, but in her eyes, and at the corners of her mouth, her affection for Die and Steve is strong – and it lends them much needed courage.
Most of the film is shot in 1:1 ratio, reflecting the situation’s claustrophobic, hopeless nature. It is only at the greatest of the family’s moments that Steve, skating free, pushes out the boundaries of the screen with his arms and allows us a few minutes of normalcy – before life returns to its narrow possibilities.
The soundtrack, featuring classics of the 90s and early 00s, takes us back to the days in which Steve and Die formed a happy trio with their now dead father and husband. The tunes lend the story kitsch as well as wistfulness for sweeter times gone by. One of the film’s stand-out scenes, is built around Celine Dion’s emotive ‘On ne Change Pas’ (We Don’t Change), the song also exemplifying Die’s key, desperate battle: can Steve become otherwise?
Dolan’s film, which he also wrote and costumed, is humane, ugly, and honest. Steve and Die co-exist through their profound love, which, in turn, feeds Kyla’s survival. Yet, Steve struggles to receive it, sensing instead his mother’s frustration and pain. How much can a parent take before they are allowed to give up? Dolan offers Die an out, by creating a fictitious Canadian law under which any parent feeling physically or psychologically threatened by their child is allowed to hand him/her over to a hospital. The build-up to the film’s climatic scene isn’t clear enough, but it is all to the benefit of the surprise provoked by Die’s choice. She lives in hope, envisaging in a broader screen a bright, promising future for her much-loved son, which the audience fears may never come.