Toward the end of Xavier Dolan’s Mommy, Diane (Anne Dorval), a middle-aged, widowed single mother, loses herself in a reverie of suppressed desires. The film charts a period of fervent stress for the titular matriarch in the wake of her son, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), being released from an institution. As their time together draws to a close, Diane is swept away in a dream of familial tranquility, wherein she’s the ideal maternal figure and Steve, who’s prone to violent tantrums and other aggressive behavior as a result of his severe ADHD, is the happy, adoring son, with a steady job and family. This wordless sequence is devastating for the way its depiction of a “normal” life ends so abruptly and initially suggests more than just a fantasy. It’s one of a handful of times where Mommy and its rush of feeling rises above the narrow narrative scope that’s irksomely augmented by the film’s technical presentation.
Indeed, Diane’s daydream happens to be one of two or three instances where the film isn’t presented in a 1:1 aspect ratio. This is a deliberately overbearing and literal expression of the story’s volatile drama and Diane and Steve’s boxed-in realities, as well as the perspective of Kyla (Suzanne Clément), their friendly, stuttering neighbor who becomes the teen’s reluctant homeschooler. This trio is seen locked in antagonistic, scarcely passive-aggressive stand-offs throughout, until they manage to slowly break out out of their self-restraint, or self-obsession, and become a makeshift, almost functional, family. In a scene set to Oasis’s “Wonderwall,” a skateboarding Steve, momentarily freed from his negative emotions, literally opens the frame with his hands, an expressively stylistic touch that emblematizes just how much the euphoria of Dolan’s sense for melodrama is succeeded by technical gimmickry.
Dolan’s script is almost pessimistically obsessed with the outside world almost willfully testing the happiness these characters etch out for themselves. Curiously, the filmmaker even roots the story in a fantasy, explained in a series of opening title cards, wherein parents are allowed to lock up their troubled children against their will. It’s a cop-out of sorts, a means for Dolan to avoid a myriad of challenging questions about mental disorder and parental responsibility, that also allows him to cockily assert his interest in articulating life as full-tilt melodrama. But it’s a mode that often suits him and his actors well, as in a scene where Kyla looks after Steve and the berating teen brings out the unnerving fury that she clearly holds back on a daily basis, a venting of vitriol that straightens him out to an extent. It’s an electric exchange of emotion that Dolan captures in a thrilling close-up of Kyla throwing her bratty charge to the ground, getting nose to nose with him and barely being able to speak coherently through her anger.
As often as the writing tends toward the histrionic and sentimental, Dolan and his actors conjure a few poignant moments of scarring hurt and weakness, including a pull-back shot of Steve, isolated and stuck in a straitjacket, leaving a phone message for his mother. Individually, these scenes are visceral, moving, and remarkable, but they draw attention to the aimlessness and redundancy of the overextended scenes of characters conversing and ’90s pop-fueled montages that make up the rest of the film. Mommy feels perpetually uneven throughout its runtime, but when Dolan’s tremendous empathy for the abandoned, medicated, and economically stressed is given full visual flight, it’s easy to get lost in the rush.