Mommy could have easily been a good film. It has all the ingredients of a good film: great performers, a good script, decent thematic depth. Alas, Mommy is not a good film, because it is ruined by one man: director Xavier Dolan. Dolan has crafted a film that feels like it should work, but it is ultimately brought down by such overt aesthetic flair that it fails to remain focused on the film’s strongest elements. It operates with a level of ADHD similar to one of the film’s primary characters, and if that was an intentional choice, it was one made to the film’s detriment.
Set in an alternate world where the Canadian government has instituted a program where parents can institutionalize their unruly teenagers with no questions asked (blatant foreshadowing if I’ve ever seen it), we follow the lives of Die (short for Diane) and Steve, a mother and teenage son who have just been reunited after Steve was expelled from boarding school for seriously injuring another student. Steve has serious anti-social behavioral issues that make him lack empathy and prone to violence, seemingly due to the death of his father at a young age. Die struggles to keep him in check, having to sacrifice her job in order to homeschool him and taking odd jobs in order to pay the bills. Enter Kyla, a neighbor who finds herself connecting with both mother and son, as a best friend and confidant respectively.
The dynamic between these three characters is actually quite charming, even if Steve’s eccentricities can become grating after a while. Die is genuinely trying her best in a difficult situation, and the support she receives from Kyla offers some relief, though not enough so that the constant strain Steve exerts isn’t always present. Kyla, on the other hand, is clearly only happy when she’s with this new surrogate family, and seemingly only remains with her husband and daughter out of a sense of obligation. Steve clearly has issues, and though he is the film’s dramatic weak link, what he represents on a thematic level is crucial to allowing Die and Kyla to fully realize their character arcs.
Unfortunately, the film’s strengths are terribly burdened by some incredibly obnoxious choices of direction. First, and most obvious, is Dolan’s insistence on shooting the film in a 1:1 aspect ratio. The film breaks free of these limited dimensions during select instances which reflect a liberation from the claustrophobic atmosphere of living with Steve, but watching the film through a perspective that looks like it was filmed on a smartphone does not make those fleeting moments of symbolic importance worth it. And both of those liberating widescreen moments feel wasted in two of the film’s five extended montages. This effectively pads the film beyond all necessity, dragging out what is ostensibly a simple story for nearly two and a half hours. Combine that with at least one abandoned plot thread that could have easily been resolved in some of that wasted screen time, and you have a film that has indulged in artistry at the expense of its overall quality.
And that is my impression of Xavier Dolan as a director: indulgent. By making an arbitrarily obnoxious visual choice and overstocking his film with his soft rock favorites, he effectively sabotaged the great performances and worthwhile story he otherwise could have made a great film out of. As it stands, though, Mommy is little more than a project of misplaced passions. Let’s hope Dolan learns his lesson.
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