A Little Bit Me/You, by Josh Long
Quebecois filmmaker Xavier Dolan’s new film Mommy could possibly be described as a feel-good tragedy. It’s a mother and son story, and, though they’re both dysfunctional people, the dysfunction doesn’t come from the typical cross-generational misunderstandings and teenage rebellion. It’s a movie about two people who have no choice but to be the only family that the other has. The tragedy arises when it becomes evident that, for many reasons, they can’t fully take on those roles, no matter how desperately they want to.
Mommy opens on Diane (Anne Dorval) as she’s in a car accident. This kind of trauma, and her unflinching attitude towards it, sets the tone for the rest of the film. Diane learns that her son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) is being released into her custody from a center for “troublesome” youths, and not because he’s getting better. On the contrary, he started a fire that injured another teenager. Diane, a single mother with a job on the rocks, suddenly has no choice but to take full care of her delinquent son. And Steve is real trouble. The film explains that he has ADHD, but there’s clearly a cocktail of disorders going on here, worst of all that he can fly into emotional states that make him a danger to himself and others.
Diane enlists the help of her neighbor Kyla (Suzanne Clément) to tutor Steve during the day. Together, the three of them form an unusual family, having dinners together, taking day trips, fostering connections that all three of them have been missing. But of course, a positive home life can’t cure Steve’s disorders, and Diane has to consider whether she’ll take advantage of a controversial new law that would allow her to commit Steve to juvenile detention.
The mother-son relationship is the center of the film. They have good moments and bad moments, but ultimately the tragedy is that they’re unable to give each other what they need. They always come up wanting. Whether it’s their flaws or their circumstances that hold them back is uncertain, but either way, they can never quite touch their ideal. This desire to be everything for each other (and consequent failure to do so) even extends into their sexuality. There are obvious Oedipal suggestions in the film, but it doesn’t seem like part of Steve’s deviance. It seems more as if he feels in some way a responsibility even to take on the romantic role in his mother’s life.
The first thing one will notice about Mommy, even from the trailer, is that Dolan chose a 1:1 aspect ratio for the film, making the frame a perfect square. It’s a strange choice, and hard to say whether it justifies itself. Artistically, it seem to be used to express the restrictions on Steve and Diane, an idea made clearer in the few moments that the film expands to full widescreen. Again, hard to say whether it’s worth it, but there at least seems to be an artistic choice at play.
The strongest aspect of the film is Anne Dorval’s performance as Diane. It’s a unique character, with complex difficulties to portray. She’s constantly having to put on a brave face for those around her, despite what must be crushing anxiety. At the same time, she’s not merely a put-upon single mother, an unlucky victim. She’s brash, irresponsible, and can come off as quite unlikeable. She’ll clearly never be a perfect mother, and it’s heart-breaking to watch her trying to be someone she’s not for Steve’s sake.
Also interesting, if problematic, is the relationship between Diane and Kyla. They both come into each other’s lives at a time when they desperately need help and a confidant. We understand this from Diane’s side, but Kyla’s backstory is less clear. She seems to be in a difficult if not downright unhappy relationship with her husband (boyfriend maybe?), but we’re not quite clear why. She has a stutter that is pronounced when dealing with her family, but becomes less severe the closer she gets emotionally to Diane and Steve. She serves as an important piece of Diane’s life, but feels a little undeveloped as an individual.
There’s inherent hope in knowing that Steve and Diane can bring each other moments of happiness, even if they don’t ever escape their cycles. This through-line, and the film’s commitment to exploring their very difficult relationship, keeps Mommy engaging across some rockier terrain.