In February 2020, it was announced that Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov would be shooting his next film, currently titled V2. Escape from Hell, in a vertical format. Having directed 2018’s Profile and producing the superior thriller Searching, he clearly wants to be an innovator. It’s probably a good call, considering his output since Wanted (2008), a very fun and ridiculous movie, has been Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012), ridiculous but not very fun, and Ben-Hur (2016), an epic disaster of epic proportion. As a producer, he’s fared better with middle-of-the-road fare like Hardcore Henry and 9. The vertical format represents a scary possibility that more films may follow suit by making films exclusively for smartphones, but his more immediate issue is the simple fact that this has already been done before, to extraordinary effect.
Granted, Xavier Dolan’s 2014 drama Mommy is not strictly shot in a smartphone-intended fashion. Rather, it’s the unusual 1:1 ratio, which one thinks would be distracting but thanks to the power of the film, becomes an effective and subtle way to zero in on the lives of three wildly different individuals.
Mommy does something I can’t recall seeing in another film quite the same way. It begins by presenting a hypothetical reality in which newly elected officials enact a law allowing parents to institutionalize troubled children without the need of due process. There have been hundreds, if not thousands of films, often in the science fiction genre, that establish an alternate reality in order to present the story at hand. Mommy, in a subtle fashion, breaks the fourth wall in the opening text. Some films, like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997/2007), blatantly break the fourth wall and even allow the characters to change the events of the film at will, like rewinding the movie to prevent a murder. Still other films like The Invention of Lying (2009) create a world almost like our own, with one key difference that affects the entire universe.
Dolan directs his frequent collaborator Anne Dorval in a difficult, complex role; a natural progression from their work together in I Killed My Mother (2009). Dorval plays Diane “Die” Despres, a widow nearing middle-age with an institutionalized teenage son. This isn’t the “bad” institution, mind you, but he still has some major difficulties. Diagnosed with ADHD and prone to bouts of extreme anger and even violence, Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon) starts a fire and inadvertently burns a fellow teen. He’s subsequently kicked out of the institution much to the chagrin of Die, who seems to be constantly wrestling with the dilemma of loving her son but also having difficulty in denying the fact that he is deeply troubled. A talk with the center’s administrator shows the subtle power of the 1:1 ratio. The scene feels intimate, intense even. This is an insular world with cumbersome restraints that refuse to allow any respite from the harsh realities Die has to face.
The film has a wickedly nasty sense of humor, with both mother and son complimenting each other by spewing venomous and often hilariously vulgar barbs. She lays down the law and even has a weary sense of humor about his blatant masturbating (he is fifteen, after all). Due to an easily aroused boss retiring early, she’s unable to make money in a cushy job. She resorts to hustling for work she’s not particularly skilled at and even getting an “advance” from a rich friend. Steve, wanting to help, disappears for the day and returns with a cart full of groceries and a ‘Mommy’ necklace, arousing suspicion and then outright accusations of theft from Die. Unfortunately, Steve has a hair-trigger temper and in one of the movie’s most intense scenes, he literally slams her against the wall and begins to choke her. It’s debatable whether the film goes too far here, but the strength of the scene is undeniable. She defends herself by smashing a picture frame over his head and running downstairs, shoving a bookcase over to block his way. She tries to calm him down the best way she can...through a locked door.
It’s after this harrowing scene that we’re properly introduced to Kyla (Suzanne Clement, another member of Dolan’s stock company), a former school teacher on an indefinite sabbatical due to a never-explained incident. She’s developed a stutter and is very shy, but she sees that Steve is in distress and cares for his wounded leg. In a clever bit of dialogue exchange, she suggests Steve go to a hospital, to which Die replies “No hospital.” Hospitals start asking questions and then she and her son may end up in deep trouble. Since the institution was essentially a lock-in school, Steve must be homeschooled for the time being, causing an awkward scene at a store when Die tries to buy textbooks but is denied the discount since her coupon should have been used at the beginning of the school year. Kyla, after some prodding from Die, who is clearly an alpha, agrees to teach Steve while Die is working.
Perhaps the film’s greatest asset is its subversion of expectations. The story, though familiar, refuses to conform to traditional beats. Kyla, of course, has major trouble with Steve, whose extreme behavior clashes badly with her withdrawn and gentle nature, ribs and bullies her until she finally snaps. Pinning him to the floor, the stutter disappears and she lets him have it, stunning Steve into silence and even causing him to urinate in his pants. Steve’s horrible behavior, both racist and sexualized, betrays the simple fact that he is a poser. Sure, he has these feelings, likely exasperated due to the tragic death of his father, but they’re turned up to eleven, making one forget that he’s just a silly fifteen-year-old boy. In another independent film, Kyla and Steve’s relationship would’ve turned sexual. This moment, her straddling him, absolutely called for them to kiss. Lonely housewife. Energetic young boy with a sharp tongue. Instead, they simply come to an understanding and Steve respects Kyla, an act he reserves for very few people. Steve’s harsh language, something Jim Carrey would have referred to as a “rapist wit,” causes the viewer to forget how young this guy really is. We think he has thoughts of aggressive sexual conquest, but it is in fact just an act and he is merely a boy, nothing more. His own sexual confusion even leads him to kiss his mother on the mouth in a misplaced attempt to show his love. It comes off as genuine but no less creepy.
Another unexpected non-twist is Kyla’s relationship with her husband. The way the movie presents him, we expect there to be trouble on the horizon. He says very little, rarely smiles, and acts suspicious around Die. There’s never a clear indication that Kyla is being held captive in her house, not literally but figuratively, but one gets that impression. Another film would’ve played out like this. She becomes close to Die and Steve, the husband gets jealous, they see or hear a commotion one night, and Steve and/or Die come to the rescue. Chaos ensues, with Steve or Die maybe killing him or beating the Hell out of him. One of them goes to jail, spinning their lives out of control, blah blah blah. This doesn’t happen. He’s not a bad man. He’s just not a very exciting man. He works in computers, so...
Die is presented as something of a MILF, not to be crude. She still wears tight jeans and gets the occasional look from men with wandering eyes. One man in particular is a neighbor, Paul (Patrick Huard) who happens to be a lawyer. He’s a nice guy, nothing special. Die is fairly indifferent, maybe flattered, but uninterested, until she gets the letter. Remember the fire and the kid? Well, his parents are suing Die and Steve for the hospital costs and it is not cheap. Die tries to use her feminine wiles to charm Paul since he may be able to help them get out of this jam. Of course, things do not go as planned, but they unfold in a relatively organic fashion. First, a tense dinner where Steve tries to behave, a little, but seeing this stranger come on to his mother sets him off and whittles away at his limited patience. They adjourn to a karaoke bar, where Steve decides to sing, ostensibly for his mother in a weak attempt to distract her from Paul. He chooses ‘Vivo Per Lei,’ an Andrea Bocelli song that the kindly server warns might not be appropriate for this particular crowd but agrees to sing with him anyways. Things do not go well as Steve is heckled (aren’t all Canadians supposed to be nice?) and the scene intensifies. You know it’s coming, it’s just a question of when. Steve attacks the rude hecklers, leading to his reprimand by Die and Paul in a parking deck. At first, Die is allowing Paul to discipline Steve. She understands that the way Steve acts is simply wrong, but she has a threshold, and when Paul snaps and hits Steve, she in turn hits Paul, ending any possibility of a legal or romantic future. To make matters even worse, while shopping, Steve attempts suicide. There seems to be no relief for this family.
Knowing her options are limited, Die experiences one last hope for her son’s future. In what is basically a wish-fulfillment dream sequence which subtly switches to widescreen, she imagines Steve, handsome and full of promise, graduating, meeting a girl, and getting married in a gorgeously shot, golden-hued ceremony. It’s a lovely calm before the storm. Along with Kyla, Die tricks Steve into going on a picnic, only to arrive at the hospital, the “bad” hospital, to commit him. An uncompromising scene unfolds as Steve has to be subdued and tased by three attendants while Kyla cowers in the car and Die desperately tries to protect her son, as she always has, while knowing she is the cause of his pain.
Kyla’s husband takes a job in Toronto, subtly abandoning Die. Their relationship is unlikely to be the same since Steve’s institutionalization, but Die has an astonishing scene in which she tries to mask her own guilt and despair by being overly positive about Kyla’s future while doubting her own. She receives a call from Steve, now trussed up in a strait-jacket, where he apologizes for his actions in a forced confessional style, reminiscent of the prepared statements at an intervention. In the film’s final, ambiguous scene, Steve is waiting to be moved by some chatty attendants and, seeing his chance, breaks free from them. In slow motion and with ‘Born to Die’ blasting, he hustles toward a window, a strange, even amused smile on his face. Credits. This scene raises many questions. Is it an evocation of the unbreakable nature of Steve’s spirit? Or is this his final suicide attempt because he can’t take it anymore? Is he just messing around with the attendants because that’s the way he is? Is it meant to be revenge against his mother for what she did to him? The ending is open to interpretation and works as both a tragic and triumphant conclusion.
I had an odd reaction to the music in Mommy. There’s an exuberant energy to Dolan’s films which demonstrates his youth, but there’s also a mature understanding of human nature, revealing an old soul. Dolan was born in 1989 and although that doesn’t really matter considering many filmmakers choose music that was released nowhere near the time they grew up, Dolan’s choices seem to reflect a very specific mindset. Hearing some of the music presented here, it’s practically an episode of VH1’s I Love The 90’s, with a little new millennium thrown in for good measure. Often used during montages, songs like White Flag, Colorblind, and Blue pop up and there’s immediate nostalgia and recognition. The entire time, I’m thinking, “yes, this or that song should absolutely be in a movie, but these are also such obvious choices that you would think the director would go with something a little less on-the-nose.” A montage set to Oasis’ Wonderwall is mesmerizing and leaves a susceptible viewer with a warm feeling. I’m very happy to have heard these songs again after so long. White Flag was one in particular that I hadn’t heard in forever. The music works, plain and simple. I think I’ve just been programmed to be cynical about non-ironic use of pretty music so it took a little extra time to acclimate myself to it.
Some critics suggested this was a step back for wunderkind Dolan. I must respectfully disagree. In fact, it may be his most successful melding of fiction and autobiographical filmmaking. For those unfortunate viewers who won’t watch a film with homosexual themes, this film may be his most accessible, even making a small profit on its initial release. Another openly gay filmmaker, John Waters, took seven years off from directing and returned with Hairspray, a PG-rated throwback to teens-in-trouble movies. His hardcore fans were horrified, but for Waters, I believe it was a natural progression. A filmmaker who was maturing. He left his deliberately shocking oeuvre behind but did not forget it. Hairspray was a new John Waters, one willing to present a more accessible piece of work without compromising his own principles or vision. I feel the same way about Dolan and Mommy. It’s an overwhelming piece that can be both exhilarating and repellant, but there is no question that it is an Xavier Dolan film.