If Mommy supports any theory, it’s that Xavier Dolan is the heir-apparent to John Cassavetes. Cassavetes and Dolan’s films operate by their bigness, by every bolded, underlined, and CAPS-locked gesture. But whereas Cassavetes’ films (A Woman Under the Influence, Gloria, or Love Streams) are rooted within gritty and naturalistic frames, Dolan opts for something much more heightened. Bigness is not simply rooted in performance in Dolan’s world, where operatic camera movements, moody lighting, and formal hijinks complement a mise-en-scene of intensified reality. Mommy is Dolan’s big gambit; it’s the director at his most formally audacious and self-indulgent. He runs the gamut of his technical and narrative tricks while exercising auteur-ship over his frames like a master director. It houses some of the director’s finest work over five films, but also highlights how Dolan’s penchant for grandiosity can get the best of him.
The fantasy of Dolan’s Mommy begins right from the start, where the film takes place in the not-too-distant future, where a series of title cards notifies us of the passing of a Canadian law that allows for parents to institutionalize their children at will. It’s a candid stream of text that’s complemented by a subsequent scene involving a car wreck. You’re forewarned: this film is ushering its blunt force at will. And so it goes, where Diane (Anne Dorval), a dejected single mother picks up her son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) from a youth detention facility. Steve’s a trouble child, possessing the pouty facial features of a Home Alone-era Macaulay Culkin set atop an intimidating frame. Steve’s prone to violent outbursts and almost immediately squares off with his mother, lashing out against Diane for accusing him of stealing. This prompts Kyla (Suzanne Clément), the next-door neighbor, to respond to the hostility found in the household, a far cry from the dull minutia she encounters at her own home. She treats the wounded Steve and befriends the odd pair, observing their rambunctious behavior with restrained and confused awe.
Utilizing a box 1:1 frame throughout most of Mommy, Dolan thematically addresses the confined social conditions of his characters. Without a job, lacking a high school education, and struggling to provide for her troubled child, Diane is constantly confronting an uphill battle to survive. Kyla’s entrance into their lives is a blessing, allowing Diane to secure work as Kyla home schools Steve. Idyllic, we see the happy triad coursing through the streets on bikes and longboard as Steve literally pushes the edges of the frame, expanding to a wide shot in what’s a little novel, a little corny, but ultimately representative of Dolan’s calculated exuberance.
The 1:1 frame is a neat thematic device and thankfully doesn’t impede on Dolan’s propensity for visual splendor. I think of the skyline littered with fabrics in Laurence Anyways or a barnyard waltz in Tom at the Farm as examples of how searing Dolan’s imagery is when seen in a wide-screen format. The boxed frame has its limitations, notably seen in the way that Dolan depends on close-ups and quick pans between characters in conversation. But the 1:1 frame imposes a great deal of immediacy with his characters. When Steve grips his fist, as Kyla anxiously pulls her hair back, or during a heated confrontation between Kyla and Steve, the box frame becomes critical in intensifying the emotional stakes. It’s not all too different from the escalated dramatic stakes of Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, where the use of close-ups envelops its audience within the picture’s passionate temperament.
Yet as I marvel at scene after scene in Mommy, from a montage set to Ludovico Einaudi’s “Experience” to a third act phone call, the picture has its structural faults. Dolan’s capacity to string scenes together at times forces his hand to fade to black and move on from there. This is a departure from the tight-wounded structure of Tom at the Farm, which was elevated for Dolan’s ability to escalate tension as the picture progressed. Also, in what’s a regression for the director, his trademark use of music becomes a bit more problematic. Some sequences, notably the aforementioned “Experience” piece, are sublime. Other times, however, Dolan’s dependence on pop music becomes too overwhelming or simply inappropriate. An early longboard sequence, set to Counting Crows’ “Colorblind”, is especially disorienting and noticeably calls attention to itself in a way that’s counter-intuitive to the film’s more refined scenes - which is to say that Dolan’s best sequences may possess the same degree of self-indulgent excess, but they also invite its audience within its rush of excitement.
Passionate fervor goes a long way though and Mommy is notable if only for Dorval and Clément’s performances. They’re incredible actresses who realize Dolan’s at times campy material with immediacy and humor. But the film has considerably more going for it, enough so as to conceal or at least cushion the structural faults the film possesses. I was lost in the film, pulled by its energy and potency. It’s by no means a logical film or even a complete one, but this operates under such raw vehemence that its misguided direction almost becomes part of its tapestry of messiness. Mommy’s rush of emotions provide a high that I’ve yet to sober up from.