Teenage Jekyll and Hyde and His Dearest Mommy

November 26, 2014By Heidi EllisonWithout Category
Anne Dorval as Diane and Antoine-Olivier Pilon as Steve in “Mommy.”

Mommy, the latest film by French-Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan, is no Mommy Dearest. If anything, it is the child who is abusive in this tale of a dysfunctional mother- son unit.

Mommy is Diane (Anne Dorval), feisty, attractive and sexy in a rather vulgar way. Her teenage son, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), always a hyperactive handful, has turned into a bipolar nightmare, alternately frighteningly violent and beguilingly sweet, since the death of his father a few years before. Diane has had him put into a home, but at the beginning of the film, he is kicked out for setting a fire that seriously injured another boy. Diane is forced to take him home.

Things start off well, with Steve happy to be free and at home with Mommy – he even gives her a gold necklace spelling out the word, which she accuses him of stealing – but they are soon locked in a screaming match that ends with him trying to strangle her. She shuts herself into a closet until he calms down and is once again sweet Steve. This establishes a pattern that is repeated over and over again – too many times; we get the idea – throughout the film.

Various other characters enter the picture, most importantly a neighbor, Kyla (Suzanne Clément), who has apparently lost her little boy (we never get her full backstory) and is as damaged in her own way as Diane and Steve. Her pain is expressed through a severe stutter.

Kyla, the third point of the triangle, introduces the possibility of hope to this sad picture. A former schoolteacher who seems to spend very little time with her husband and small daughter, she begins to tutor Steve, who took to her as soon as they met, and a tight bond is formed between the three main characters.

This is a film that is hard to watch (and impossible to understand for anyone who is not from French-speaking Canada; slangy French subtitles are provided for the French audience) as one scene after another showcases Steve’s roller-coaster moods. What makes it worth seeing is the brilliance of the acting, especially on the part of Pilon as Steve. His performance is so true, so pitch-perfect that it is hard to believe that he isn’t really Steve, a kid you can’t help loving in spite of his crazy temper.

Dolan, whose corpus of films already qualifies him as an auteur, wrote, directed and edited Mommy, which won the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. He even gets a credit for costume design. By the end, one wishes that instead of doing it all himself he had allowed an objective editor and maybe another screenwriter to work on the film, which would have benefited greatly from being cut (it runs for two hours and 19 minutes), tightened up and given a stronger ending.

Read reviews of previous films by Xavier Dolan here and here.


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