Some movies want to belt you out of the theater; Mommy wants to tie you to the chair, jam a stick of dynamite in your mouth, and light it. The young Canadian writer-director Xavier Dolan has made fascinating movies that thrive on awkwardness and humiliation. Like Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk in their Cassavetes films, Dolan’s characters spray their emotions like bullets. Mommy plays at times like a second try at I Killed My Mother, the 2009 debut in which Dolan himself played the awful gay son who can’t get along with his awful mother. He doesn’t anticipate ambivalent responses. Here’s one: when it works Mommy is affecting; when it doesn’t, hoo boy.
Shot for most of its length in the unforgiving rectangle of smartphone video, presumably for that vérité quebecoise, Mommy fills its frames to bursting. Its opening title card sequence explaining the Canadian law obligating parents to institutionalize children whom they can’t care for is one of its few concessions to realist drama. Diane “Die” Després isn’t. From the moment the camera studies her sequined jeans and the way she dots her signed i’s with bubbles with a keychain, Dolan has Barbara Stanwyck’s Stella Dallas in mind: the cinema’s grandest example of a hellion on heels, a mother so Teflon-coated against irony that her bad taste and monstrous egotism adduce her goodness of heart even if no one can stand to be around her. Anne Dorval, who plays Die, isn’t sympathetic; she doesn’t soften Die’s egoism. But she makes clear she regards her son as the promise of a youth unfulfilled — hers.
When Die springs Steve from the institute, it’s not clear who’s taking care of whom, hard to know who’s more juvenile, which is Dolan’s point. Family relations can infantilize, he suggests. Then a neighbor, a woman with a steady gaze and stutter named Kyla (Suzanne Clément), joins the mix. And it’s a mix. Given to tantrums and abrupt violence, Steve is incapable of holding a conversation without making interlocutors feel guilty. He’s even wore than Die; when his hormones direct him to Kyla I was afraid for her not Steve. But Dolan loves him anyway. He ravishes Steve with the Dolan hallmarks: characters (and actors) playing with self-presentation, set to jump cuts, like a scene with Steve slapping aftershave on his cheeks after a bath and yelling like Macauley Culkin in Home Alone; slow-mo sequences in which Steve can’t contain agony or ecstasy; threshold shots meant to establish a distance that Dolan will erase in the next scene; frontal shots. Another moment indulges Dolan’s fetish for kids reveling in the Spirit of Youth, this time set to Counting Crows and requires Steve throwing shit into a shopping cart outside, a kind of motif. Dolan loves music so much that I suspect he has the song in mind before the scene and writes a scene commensurate with the song’s emotional center (Heartbeats, my favorite of his movies and in my head a dorm room classic, imagines a milieu set to a rotation of The Knife’s music). The most fulsome scene Dolan soundtracks to Celine Dion’s “On Ne Change Pas,” his trio uneasily swaying to the rhythm of feelings over which they have little control.
With details arranged like this Mommy sounds like a great movie, but it isn’t. Dolan uses actors as crutches, and when they fail him he lets them shout at each other like in the third act of a Paddy Chayefsky script. To watch the movie sink to those hysterics makes me wonder if he’s learned a thing from I Killed My Mother. He has though. And he will.