For a director whose characters regularly display an abundance of melodramatic sentiment, Xavier Dolan leaves himself plenty of emotional cover in his films. His stance isn’t ironic exactly, but he employs an assortment of stylistic elements—long, pop-soundtracked montages, exaggerated scene-ending slow-motion shots—that, through their extravagance, stop him just short of owning his characters’ emotions. In Mommy, about the dysfunctional relationship between the titular mother, Diane (Anne Dorval), and her ADHD-suffering son, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), Dolan brings in a new aesthetic quirk. He films almost entirely in a square aspect ratio, which immediately recalls an Instagram frame and presses the characters together, heightening the tension in a mother-son relationship that’s already at a fever pitch: Steve calls Diane a whore, bitch, and much more, and the two are always on the verge of violence.
Dolan does let his images splash across the entire screen twice in the film, in one instance with a flash of heavy-handed self-awareness as Steve puts his hands to the edges of the frame and pushes the shot into widescreen. The moment is worth mentioning because it inserts a wink of artificiality into an otherwise exuberant scene, and becomes yet another hesitation on Dolan’s part to embrace sincerity. The success of Dolan’s films has always depended on whether an honest emotional core can eventually rise above such tendencies. That happened in Laurence Anyways, his best film, largely because of its performances, including one from Suzanne Clément, who in Mommy has another exemplary turn as Diane and Steve’s neighbor, Kyla.
There are other standout elements in Mommy: a touching dance scene in the kitchen where, for a moment, confidence and joy prevail over a frail life; a tender and quiet conversation between Steve and Kyla; a euphoric montage toward the end. In these moments, Dolan conveys an overwhelming care and love for life, which isn’t surprising because he’s a director with tremendous heart—his most endearing quality when he chooses to present it. But he’s also a director too prone to putting on airs, and in Mommy these two sides of him struggle for supremacy, neither quite winning the day and leaving the final outcome to be settled in his next film.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 4—14.