French Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan has to be one of the most impressive talents the cinema has ever seen. With five features now under his belt, his work has featured heavily in the Cannes Film Festival, often walking away with major awards. He's a darling with critics and loved by his fans... and he's only 26 years old. His work would be impressive for someone twice his age let alone someone who had barely made it out of his teens when he made his first feature, 'I Killed My Mother' (2009). Each film has found Dolan getting better and better, but even those well-versed in his work could not have been prepared for his fifth feature, 'Mommy'. If you didn't rate Dolan before, you have no choice after this one.
Set in an alternate future in Canada where parents are able to institutionalise troubled children without strict regulation, the film follows the relationship of a mother and son - Diane (Anne Dorval), unemployed and ill-equipped for motherhood, and her son Steve (Antione-Olivier Pilon), who has just been released from child detention back into his mother's care. Steve suffers from violent ADHD, and Diane finds herself often caught between tremendous love for him and striking fear. The two accidentally form a friendship with their neighbour Kyla (Suzanne Clément), who suffers from a debilitating stutter and crippling self-esteem. Together, they form an unlikely and powerful bond that might just lead them to some sort of salvation.
What could be trite or sentimental material and lesser hands becomes something spectacular in Dolan's. 'Mommy' is a passionate, unforgiving, hilarious and devastating work of cinema that puts almost everything that comes close to it to shame. Wielding the camera like a weapon, Dolan drives deep into the complex emotional landscape of his characters, each as carefully constructed as the last. These are the most human of characters, crippled by their failings but determined to fight for their survival. Diane and Steve might be the worst combination of mother and son, but they love each other unconditionally, regardless of how well they fulfil their part in the relationship.
Dolan and cinematographer André Turpin have chosen to shoot 'Mommy' in an aspect of 1:1, creating a square image that relishes the detail and intensity of the close-up. It's just one example of the visual daring Dolan uses to open up what should be a suburban drama into a thumping epic. The film dances along at a dangerous, dazzling pace, Dolan's stunning editing bolstered by one of the best soundtracks in years. What strikes you most about 'Mommy' is just how much love and passion is in it, not just for the characters and their relationships, but for the medium itself and the possibilities it presents. Just when you think you're finally in step with Dolan's film, he pulls out a moment of virtuosic spectacle that literally takes your breath away. Balanced with the joy though is an uncompromising emotional violence, where the intimacy of the aspect ratio becomes intrusive and heartbreaking. Steve is a devastating figure, but Dolan presents him to us through the eyes of Diane and Kyla, both of whom so desperately want to help him but balance that with hidden terror for both his safety and theirs. As the film rolls towards its immense climax, the enormity of its emotions and the splintering of these close-knit people becomes almost too painful to watch. This is one film that doesn't hold back in delivering its considerable punches.
The film dances along at a dangerous, dazzling pace, Dolan's stunning editing bolstered by one of the best soundtracks in years.
As much as 'Mommy' is a master class in filmmaking, its performances are examples of the finest in screen acting. Anne Dorval reunites with Dolan after appearing as the matriarch in 'I Killed My Mother' (2009), and while she was impressive in that film, her work in 'Mommy' is utterly revelatory. She delivers a spectacular performance as Diane, a woman fighting against the constraints of her forties and her job as a mother while trying to protect and care for her troubled son. She's sensual, joyful and broken, and utterly mesmerising to watch. Pilon is also absolutely stunning and Steve, sound and fury signifying a most troubled soul ripped apart by contradiction. For such a young actor, this is the definition of bravery and he literally blows the screen apart. And competing this perfect trio is Clément, who as Kyla charts the most powerful transformation, spreading her wings crippled by self-doubt and discovering who she really is. As a balance to the elemental force of Dorval and Pilon, Clément delivers a beautifully subtle and heartbreaking performance, a calm amidst the storm.
Watching 'Mommy' was one of those rare experiences you pray to have in the cinema. During its two and a half hours, I found myself in a state of shock and awe at what I was seeing. What Xavier Dolan has given us is a miracle of a film, one that left me laughing, crying, shaking and cheering all at once, so in love with life itself that even at its darkest moments, it still manages to find its passion and its heart. It's spectacular in scope and intense in its intimacy all at the same time, with filmmaking virtuoso that will literally take your breath away. I have little doubt that, when it comes time for me to make my list of the best films of 2015, this masterpiece will still be sitting at the top.