TIFF ’14 Review: ‘Perfectly titled’ Mommy lives up to its hype

Following its debut at TIFF on Tuesday, film critic Thom Ernst reviews Xavier Dolan's film for Playback and finds a filmmaker that "challenges the breaking points of an against-all-odds narrative."
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Out of Cannes and straight into TIFF14, Xavier Dolan’s remarkable film, Mommy, is likely to be one of the most talked about films at the festival. The story of Diane, a mother who retrieves her volatile and unstable son, Steve, from a state-run youth centre arrives to Toronto carrying with it the buzz of a Palme d’Or nomination and a Cannes jury prize win.

Mommy is perfectly titled; an infantile term of endearment playing to the stalled relationship between mother and son, as well as alluding to a fantasy of innocence that likely never existed. There are suggestions throughout the film that a father was once part of the family, but this too seems to be somewhat of a hopeful recreation of the past.

The remarkable thing about Xavier Dolan’s Mommy is not that the film was made by a 25 year-old, but that anyone thought to make it at all. Not that we haven’t seen this kind of film before. We have. But if Mommy were content to coddle us with working class heroes full of gumption and tenacity, than we’d be tromping through familiar territory already covered in Erin Brockovich (2000).

Mommy is something different.

There’s a sensibility in this story of Diane and Steve that challenges the breaking points of an against-all-odds narrative. And Dolan doesn’t pander to any instincts that would classify his characters as diamonds in the rough. Diane and Steve don’t win us over with spit-fire determination. What wins us over is their unwavering, often unsettling, conviction to who they are – even when they are unlikeable.

And yet Dolan finds moments of intangible tranquility amongst the adversity. There is nothing but peace and solace when Steve glides on his skateboard, moving gracefully to the beat of a song playing through his headsets. Whatever demons haunt him are pushed aside and for a moment, hope is a possibility.

Dolan surpasses the moniker as being one of Canada’s up-and-coming. Mommy secures his role as a major player on the Canadian and international scene. Whether or not the film will take him out of art-house obscurity and into mainstream attention is yet to be seen. But with rumours of an American project in the works it appears as if Dolan may be following the path of fellow-Canadian (Quebecois) filmmakers Denis Villeneuve and Jean-Marc Vallèe.  Maybe now’s the time for Dolan to start work on The Death and Life of John F. Donavan, a film he’s been hinting at as his first American feature since the completion of Laurence Anyways (2012).

On the momentum of festival buzz and the Cannes Jury prize, Mommy will get the attention it needs to maintain a strong North American and European audience. A second prize from Toronto would add even more audience incentive. But regardless of critical reception, Mommy is still an art house film. Without the benefit if big name stars and Dolan’s directorial choice to shoot the film m 1:1 ratio (a format that only uses 1/3 of the screen) Mommy is unlikely to gain a significant audience at the local cineplexes.
But Mommy doesn’t have to break box-office records to be a success. Its audience – cinephiles and art house enthusiasts – already lie in wait for the film to arrive.

I arrive late to the party when it comes to appreciating Dolan’s work. It would be disingenuous of me to join the ranks that call Mommy Dolan’s best work to date, although I cannot imagine a better film being made.  Whether Mommy is Dolan’s most accomplished work or not, it is clearly, even to a Dolan newbie like myself, one of the best films of the year.