There are some films that somehow suit the cinema in which they are shown.
Hidden away, yet only a stone’s throw from Leicester Square, is the sorry looking, run down, neglected, yet considerably charming Odeon on London’s Panton Street.
Sat amongst the customary handful of waifs, strays and assorted degenerates that always seem to coincide their film watching jamboree with my own, at this, the mother of all throw-back cinemas, you somehow couldn’t ask for a better venue to take in a gritty, Xavier Dolan offering.
Dolan’s last outing, back in 2014, was the excellent ‘Tom à la ferme’; a look at a family’s dysfunctionality, forbidden secrets and their coming to terms with bereavement. The main theme of family dysfunction is further explored here in ‘Mommy,’ another hard-hitting piece, exploring an alternative and much darker take on the classic, happy family unit.
Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon – massively dislikeable here in the main, in a good way), is a truly repellant teenager, but in fairness, there are mitigating cirumstances for this; he suffers from acute ADHD, a condition that has led him to be expelled from education establishments in which he’s caused untold havoc with serious, lasting repercussions. Steve’s mother, Diane (Anne Dorval), arrives on the scene to bring her son home. It’s a victory for heart over head, but in Diane’s mind, blood is thicker than water, family is family and it’s the right thing to do. It just so happens to be the only thing possible left to do, too. It’s a good job Steve has a mother like Diane who is at pains to insist that he’s a good boy at heart.
So unfolds a harrowing period of conflict, both verbal and physical, between Steve and his mother as they jostle for supremacy of the household. It’s only when shy but beguiling neighbour Kyla (Suzanne Clement), enters their lives, befriends Diane and and becomes Steve’s home tutor, that, for an all too rare moment in time, Steve is able to rediscover genuine happiness and peace in his life; shedding his considerable burdens and living once again with some hope for his own future.
Dolan makes good use of an interesting technique of restricting the screen’s visual perspective to an unconventional 5:4 ratio which brings with it a sort of suffocating, restrictive feel to proceedings, presumably mirroring the exasperation, suffocation and hopelessness felt by Steve, his mother and Kyla.
On those fleeting occasions during the film when Steve and consequently Diane and Kyla, appear to be embracing happiness, the screen opens out with the use of a more conventional and liberating 16:9, widescreen perspective; in effect the world of possibility literally, visually opens up for them all.
It’s an intriguing relationship that Dolan paints between Steve, his mother and Kyla, a lady with her own family unit yet clearly experiencing feelings of suffocation and unfulfillment in her life; indeed, all three of the film’s key characters are sort of kindred spirits; made for and needing one another more than they may realise or would care to admit; a sort of surrogate family for each other. It’s unconventional, but it works.
There’s certainly no pulling of punches with Dolan’s in-your-face style of dialogue and direction. He does a great job of exploring inside the fragile minds of characters that are deeply troubled in their own way and who shoulder their own considerable emotional baggage.
On a slightly critical note, the film’s conclusion seemed just a little undercooked and the screenplay occasionally loses it’s way, but no matter; the good work that precedes it firmly establishes ‘Mommy’ as a powerful and somewhat troubling story of frustration, home truths and tough love and is yet more evidence of Xavier Dolan’s burgeoning reputation as one of the best young film makers out there.