Adolescence is a trauma we all have to navigate. If we're lucky, it's a relatively brief storm on the waters of life. But for Steve Després, the violent and mentally ill teenager in Mommy, adolescence has become a lethal affair. He has a raging hurricane in his head that never lets up.
The latest from 26-year-old Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan, Mommy tells the story of Steve and his damaged mother, Diane, a family in serious trouble in the suburbs of Quebec. The French-language film won the Jury Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, where it received a 10-minute standing ovation. It was also Canada's submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards.
It's a domestic drama that plays like a thriller, thanks to the performance of 17-year-old Antoine-Olivier Pilon. Hitchcock had a saying: A bomb under the table explodes—that's action. A bomb under the table doesn't explode—that's suspense. Steve is the bomb that doesn't explode. Until it does.
Anne Dorval plays Diane, a tough but downwardly mobile widow with a quick temper and a trucker's vocabulary. (It's fun to hear all the high-octane profanity in French.) Diane has a fierce love for her boy, despite his violent outbursts. Steve has just been kicked out of a boarding school for troubled kids, and his behavior quickly spirals. The third character is Kyla, a concerned neighbor with her own tragic past.
Steve, Diane and Kyla form a sort of love triangle that's partly filial, partly sexual and mostly out of control. We never really get inside Steve's head, but we do get glimpses into Kyla's inner world, and long gazes into Diane's troubled heart. Several scenes get very squirmy. The air is thick with Oedipal energy.
Dolan films on 35mm, but in an audacious 1:1 aspect ratio—a completely square box that constricts the imagery in interesting ways. Close-ups are uncomfortably intimate and standard two-shot dialogue scenes are creatively composed by necessity. In two instances, the frame opens up into standard letterbox format, for effect. These are self-conscious stylistic flourishes from a young filmmaker, but they work.
Mommy is a treacherous and sometimes transgressive piece of work, with sharp edges throughout. But at its heart, it's a story of love and loss and one mother's ferocious devotion to her child. There's a wildness to it, and the performances are nothing short of astounding. Highly recommended.
Mommy is now available on DVD, iTunes, Amazon and other view-on-demand and digital platforms.
Other recommended releases this week, now available on digital and/or disc:
Nominated for Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards, the historical drama Selma chronicles the work of Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches.
Veteran British character actor Timothy Spall—you'll know him when you see him—plays influential painter J.M.W. Turner in director Mike Leigh's biopic Mr. Turner.
Director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) brings the hard comic noir with Inherent Vice, based on the work of Thomas Pynchon and starring Josh Brolin, Joaquin Phoenix, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon and Benecio del Toro.
Picks for May releases on Netflix:
Speaking of Witherspoon: If you've never seen it, the feather-light comedy Legally Blonde (2001) showcases her underrated and artful comic instincts.
Sadly more relevant than ever, director Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station (2013) dramatizes the death of Oscar Grant, the young black man killed by transit cops in Oakland, California in 2009.
And for the discerning binge-watcher, the new original series Daredevil—based on the Marvel Comics series—is already a critical and popular success, continuing Netflix's improbably high batting average.