Sunday, January 25, 2015

Review: Mommy

Image courtesy of Roadside Attractions.
"Mommy," the latest film from Canadian enfant terrible Xavier Dolan, won the Grand Jury prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival and was a favorite among many who attended the festival. And yet, it's a film that I can admire for it's technical prowess and chutzpah, while at the same time feeling a bit removed from its characters and story.

One of my problems with "Mommy" is my inability to get around the fact that the characters often come off as grating. Now, I've long subscribed to the notion that characters do not have to be likable or relatable for me to praise a film. Think about it, many of the great films - from "Raging Bull" to "There Will Be Blood" - have featured lead characters whom you might not want to know in real life.

What makes "Mommy" a challenge in this department is that - although I can't read Dolan's mind or know his intentions - it appears we are supposed to relate to these characters and feel sympathy for them, which, I'll admit, is no easy task. The film's basic plot revolves around Diane 'Die' Despres (Anne Dorval, who gives a strong performance), a mother overburdened by Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), her nightmare of a son.

And, yes, Steve is a nightmare, which makes it difficult to identify with him as the rebel Dolan appears to think he is. At the beginning of the film, he's been kicked out of the juvenile detention center where he'd been staying after he set fire to the cafeteria, permanently scarring the face of another youth. He shouts racist slurs at an African immigrant cab driver and tells him to leave "his country." He gropes women's chests, who clearly do not want to be groped. He attempts to strangle his own mother. He taunts a woman with a stutter named Kyla (Suzanne Clement), whose own life becomes enmeshed with Diane and Steve, who are her neighbors.

For much of the film's padded two-hours-and-20-minutes, the story is presented in the "Academy ratio," which takes up just about half of the screen and is presented as a box in its center. The visual style - which, in this case, comes off as a bit of a gimmick - is intended to make the viewer - and, thematically, the characters - feel boxed in.

Twice during the film, the "Academy ratio" is broken - first, when Steve literally uses his hands to push open the box and allow the visuals to be viewed in a widescreen effect. This is scored to Oasis' "Wonderwall" and serves as the sequence in which the three characters - Steve on a skateboard, his mother and Kyla on bicycles - break out of their stressful existences.

The second break from the "Academy ratio" comes later in the film as Diane fantasizes that her son lives a normal life, gets married and so on. It's one of the film's more powerful moments but, unfortunately, it only serves to lead up to an ending that was, in my opinion, a little more melodramatic than was necessary.

The film's actors give performances that are worthy of praise, even if their characters are often difficult to spend time around. This is Dolan's fifth feature - and the guy is only in his mid-20s, so that alone is impressive. But I've yet to be completely sold on one of his films. "Mommy" has much to admire, but I can't wholeheartedly recommend it. The performances and some of the visuals are pretty strong, although I could have done without the visual gimmickry and a number of sequences felt underwritten, as did the intentions and motivations of the film's characters.

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