As engrossing as it is disturbing.
Movie Review #992
“Mommy” is one difficult movie to watch—and that’s at the heart of what writer-director Xavier Dolan is trying to do here. He’s a rare breed: a filmmaker who can make a movie that is equally shocking, discomforting, and powerful. The guy is everything that Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier have been in their addictive yet repulsive cinematic journeys. What sets Dolan apart from those two is that he implements moments of calm and sweetness, as if to undermine the film’s harrowing, tense atmosphere. Better yet, these scenes feel so genuinely euphoric that they act as complements to the more brutal scenes in “Mommy”. It only becomes a more aggressive experience to endure.
I use the word “endure” as opposed to “enjoy” for a reason. “Mommy” isn’t the kind of film to be liked or enjoyed in any way. It’s brutal, it’s heavily realistic, and it’s often very repulsive. It’s meant, rather, to be absorbed and appreciated. There’s a great amount of art to this movie, the most obvious being that it was filmed in a square, 1:1 aspect ratio. That cropping gives the film its tense, idyllic beauty. What we see here feels like dauntingly realistic footage of a tragedy that seems impossible to deal with. It’s led by Anne Dorval, in a powerhouse delivery, as a single mother working fingers to bone to make ends meet. Her son, Steve, has ADHD and currently is away at boarding school, but she decides to take him back into her care when she finds out that he has been expelled for his impulsive and violent behavior. It’s either that or the school puts him in a juvenile detention center. Steve’s mother loves her son, but seems to barely know him and is unable to connect with him in any way. She’s now in the position where she has to watch out for him constantly, in order for him not to end up in trouble once more.
The relationship between mother and son in “Mommy” can be extremely unsettling. They say things to each other that no decent mother and son would ever say to one another, let alone any human being. His behavior toward her can grow appallingly violent. At one point in the film, Steve comes close to choking his mother to death. His inability to control himself is the most heartbreaking fact that we face in this movie: his impulsion often completely grey-clouds the fact that he deeply loves and appreciates his mother. He vows to take care of her and goes out of his way to do so, despite his erratically violent behavior toward her. One might say the film goes a little over the top in depicting Steve’s struggle with ADHD, and his mother’s struggle to manage with him. I disagree: as aggressively far as “Mommy” takes it subject matter, not once does it feel like a caricature. In fact, the further it delves into the angst between its two characters, the more lifelike it feels.