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TIFF: Mommy = Xavier Dolan's Best

Nathaniel's adventures at TIFF. Day 1

Technically speaking day 2 has just ended and it was an incredible day with consistently great films and memorable offscreen moments. But one day at a time. Day 1's highlight was the Cannes holdover Mommy from Xavier Dolan.

It's attention-grabbing from its first frames with an unusual aspect ratio. Technically speaking it's a 1:1 but if that means nothing to you (I'm not an aspect ratio geek either) know that it's square. Since square is not our beloved and horizontally familiar widescreen, the image feels alarming vertical, more akin to a cel phone shape. This description helps convey the movie's undeniable modernity but it doesn't convey it's lush beauty. (I've heard Mommy knocked as 'the first instagram movie' but, hey, Emmanuel Lubeszki is on instagram so let's not knock it as a Beauty Delivery System.) 

Technical film geekery aside, know this: the screen can barely contain the movie's explosive feelings. Hell, the aspect ratio can't even contain this movie's explosive feelings in one of its own best and most atypically tender jokes. 


Mommy isn't a plot movie, though the onscreen text detailing some particulars about the fictional future Canada this takes places in leads one to believe otherwise. Suffice it to say that this movie is about "Die" (the brilliant Anne Dorval) a sexy vulgar 40 something widow whose only son "Stevie" (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) has just been released from some sort of juvenile home where they refuse to deal with his erratic and violent behavior any longer. Die is erratic enough all on her own without her ticking time-bomb son to throw her off track. They love each other but love isn't always enough. Almost immediately after he moves back in they're physically fighting in a completely unnerving scene that stains even the most innocuous and happy moments that follow with a sense of dread. The actors brilliantly conjure 15 years of troubled conjoined history. For his part Dolan pushes the key sequences to such heightened extremes that you can practically see the psychic umblical cord still connecting this "Mommy" to her Bad Seed son; it's made from barbed wire. 

Die and Stevie aren't without their rebel charms but they're hard to take in large doses so one of Mommy's best moves is to complicate this already complex relationship with a third party. Their neighbor Kyla (Suzanne Clement), a school teacher on sabbatical, befriends them both to everyone's surprise. Suddenly the loud dischordant duet is a trio, a harmonious trio even... for a time at least.

There are frequent moments when Mommy is TOO MUCH but Dolan and his actors earn the extremes by exposing rich depths where these oversized emotions have long-since taken root. Dolan's own showmanship and bravado as a young filmmaker can even look like a funhouse mirror of his enfant-terrible subject. Tom at the Farm was a promising detour into genre fimmaking last year that suggested more range than most assumed Dolan had. He comes to Mommy an even better filmmaker for it. At nearly two and half hours, you'd think Mommy's abrasiveness would overstay its welcome, or the repetitive behavioral problems would drag the movie down but it flies by. There are so many dazzling details to enjoy like the movie's playful (even trite) but still emotionally expressive use of music. I love this one shot of Stevie skateboarding where you can hear the very loud scoring but, underneath it, rap music from Stevie's headphones. The brief wordless scene feels offhand, like it's meant to merely give texture to Stevie's life outside his mother, but the music choice is an almost subliminal echo of an earlier scene where Die and Stevie are blasting their own separate radios, and fighting about the resulting cacophony. 

All movies end up on small screens very quickly these days. In fact, that's almost the only place anyone in the US has seen Xavier Dolan movies (Netflix Instant, thank you) thanks to the sorry state of foreign language film distribution in the States. But I refuse to believe that Mommy will or could play on computers, phones or TV. It will defy all natural laws of digital imagery and refuse to shrink. Mommy's emotions are just too huge and raw to fit anywhere but on the biggest of screens. He should've filmed it in IMAX. 

Grade: A/A-
Oscar Chances: Canada submitted I Killed My Mother, Xavier's debut, for Oscar's foreign film race in its year though it was not nominated. They haven't submitted Dolan since but I'm hoping that Mommy wins that honor this year and the Oscar nod it deserves after that. 

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Reader Comments (11)

It's the first Dolan film that doesn't feel chronically undernourished (and/or like a hazy patchup of bits from his favourite directors) but it's still pretty flawed.

Maybe when he hits 30 he'll finally shake off the ipod-shuffle approach to soundtrack crafting (and did we really need to hear every. single. one. of those songs IN FULL?!).

I also didn't like that I had to spend over two hours waiting for an incident telegraphed in the opening intertitle. Essentially the whole movie amounted to a hysterically protracted opening act. And also it was all a bit one-note. Though granted, the actors do amazing things with that one note. I'd particularly love to see Dorval and Clement in a non-Dolan film.

September 6, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

the telegraphed finale didn't bother me at all. It only adds tragic dimension to what you can see: this is an impossible situation for this particular set of people. The emotional climax before the climax and the first post script were far more moving/important than the plot denouement.

I get the critique that his previous films feels undernourished. I attribute that at least in part to the speed at which he makes them (because that sams critique can be successfully lobbed at other famously prolific auteurs). i also get the critique of "why the full song?" -- in other films the emphasis on lengthy musical sequences has dragged things down (i'm thinking particularly of Heartbeats/Imaginary Loves) but I don't think it does that here.

September 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

Dolan is my spirit animal. Like, the kid is brilliant. He's younger than me, and yet has done more in his 25 years than I think I ever will. But the kicker is that he's done it well, really well. Laurence Anyways is probably one of my top ten favorite films, OF ALL TIME. He has such a beautiful way of creating this thick sense of style and theatrics without losing the intimacy of his subject. Sure, he's not a perfect filmmaker...he's still growing, but he's really, truly growing! He's learnt to control his desire to go big by tapering it in a way that makes sense and serves purpose. He delivers style AND substance in a way that no one else is doing right now.

I can't wait to see this! Loved your review. I'm jealous.

September 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

I refuse to believe that Mommy will or could play on computers, phones or TV. It will defy all natural laws of digital imagery and refuse to shrink. Mommy's emotions are just too huge and raw to fit anywhere but on the biggest of screens.

I love foreign language movies. I have not experienced them theatrically and do not understand why most are not bothered watching a movie in a theater where their eyes are lowered for the duration of the movie to read what the characters are saying. When watching a foreign language movie at home you can pause and rewind for clarity. The fact is some of my most naturally high cinematic viewing experiences come from titles I could not see elsewhere but at home.

To make use of Bret Easton Ellis: you're empire. Where the old models are still relevant to you as something that should be steadfastly upheld. The post-empire reality is that movie and television content are widely available. And the venue usually is your own computer monitor.

September 6, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

Dolan plays full songs because music - as in the scenes of clashing radios and headphones under the non-diegetic soundtrack - is so vital to how his characters shape their identities. Take how Steve clings to the memory of the mix CD from a childhood trip with his parents, when times were better and more stable. I think the way he uses music is the way Linklater wished he could have in Boyhood - markers of the passage of the character through the story. But Dolan never lets it feel gimmicky, in part because he never chooses bad songs, or songs that aren't emotionally resonant in the moment. I mean, sure, you can complain about having to listen to the entirety of Dalida's cover of 'Bang Bang' in Les Amours Imaginaires, but why would you? It's gorgeous, and it's not often you get the opportunity to hear it in such a lush environment.

September 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLaurence

No way that's 1:1. Based on the trailer it looks more like 1:1.5 or something. Even you say it's like a cellphone.

September 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

jonathan -- i'm just told that it's 1:1 from the internet. but as I said it didn't feel square to me.

September 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

So glad you loved it! I can't wait to see it. Sadly I have no idea when that will be.

September 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSad man

One word: Dido.

September 6, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

Beyond ready for this and because he has a semi-respectable distributor, it won't take eons or illegal downloads to finally catch it.

September 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

It's his best film. And for everyone saying the Best Actress field is thin this year, I urge you to watch Anne Dorval in Mommy. You could also watch Oscar WINNER Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night and Hollywood SUPERSTAR ScarJo in Under The Skin. Now is that so hard? And you'd have three strong nominees just right there.

September 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph

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