Sometimes it is the grief and anguish of characters that we can reflect on, rather than the merits of the narrative and dramatics themselves, that make a film rewarding. Mommy, from director Xavier Dolan, presents itself with the typical stylings of a hard-hitting drama. It is with its utilisation of harsh tones and strained family details that his story of a neighbour and a widow hits off so well. It should not, for these characters have little in common besides living in the same area as one another, and the mystery found underlining this relationship plays on the mind of an impressionable teen rebel, Steve (Antoine-Oliver Pilon).
It is with this doubt and the anguish perceived by Steve that Mommy can utilise its considerably heavy narrative aspects. He is a control freak, an unpredictably violent individual that needs some level of conformity in his life. There is a difference between free spirit and antagonistic rebel, though, and Dolan, to his credit, pushes Pilon’s performance further and further into the latter. Basing itself primarily on the coaxing abilities of fictional laws for realistic scenarios, the characters within Mommy have the S-14 law looming over their heads. It gives parents the ability to hospitalise their children should limited finances push them that way. As it turns out, Diane (Anne Dorval) is one such woman.
Children are hard to raise and harder still to raise right. They are snot-nosed money leeches that will do everything and anything they can to break from what is, essentially, meant to be helping them. Pilon presents that perfectly well, but it is the response and agitation of Dorval that gives his performance and Dolan’s commentary the narrative punch and flair it desperately clamours for. A 1:1 aspect ratio, along with some beautifully realised and understood camera angles and technical choices make for a marvellous film. It looks well, and its beauty is contrasted rather immediately by the less-than-ideal relationship between a mother and her son. That dynamic between Dorval and Pilon is incredible, and their performances do much of the heavy lifting. Yet it is the contrast Dolan can present between this fraught relationship and his sleek direction that makes for the heaviest hitting impact.
A strained relationship is always going to give way to the delicacy of it. Diane and Steve are never meant to get along, despite both of them truly trying to do so. Not all the time, nobody is perfect and had that been the case anyway, Mommy would not have its narrative crutch. Arguments, threats and love make their way through, and there is a sense of confinement for Steve always present. Whether that is with his mother, alone, or the eventual confinement that surely waits for him later in life, there is an understanding that whatever he does, he cannot escape. There are those watching that will feel the same, and Dolan understands that claustrophobia and anxiety to a degree few filmmakers elsewhere have found.