Canadian director Xavier Dolan is on his fifth feature, so the "newcomer" tag is no longer applicable to a talent that is as undeniable as it is infuriating. While it's fair enough that his career so far has been entirely built on the sheer youthful, voluntary arrogance of his work, five films in you would expect a little more maturity and a little less show-off than the sprawling yet consistently intriguing Mommy projects.
To be sure, that rebellious, pop-filmmaker irreverence is part and parcel of what has made following Mr. Dolan's work so interesting. For all the virtuoso or demonstrative stylistic flourishes, there is no denying the sincerity of the films, the fact that he is going all out on screen with little or no restraint, as if they were all borne out of a unquenchable desire to do something and do something now, his way.
Mommy comes full circle with his promising 2009 debut I Killed My Mother, being another dysfunctional tale of mother and son, again with the remarkable Anne Dorval in the mother role. But this love/hate relationship is here set in a more fully realised and less entropic universe: in a small French Canadian town, Diane (Ms. Dorval in a powerful characterisation) gets by as best she can in a low-paying job until suddenly becoming saddled with her psychologically unbalanced teenage son.
Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon) has just been expelled from the state facility he was committed to for yet another violent incident, and it won't take long for the viewer to realise just how seriously unhinged the initially charming, fast-talking boy is, and how much of a fight it is for Diane just to be able to deal with him.
In throws Mr. Dolan the neighbour across the street, the fragile Kyla (Dolan regular Suzanne Clément), who is also reeling from her own personal tragedy (suggested but never truly explained); what follows is the construction (and subsequent destruction) of a possible nuclear family, Diane and Kyla pooling their strengths to try and build a normal life for Steve despite the fact that every single thing around them seems to be conspiring to prevent them from it.
In so doing, Mommy becomes an highly-strung, unrestrained modern-day version of classic melodramas, like a Douglas Sirk film with all the containing restrictions of the studio system removed and the volume blown up to 11.
For all that, though, you can't help but think that the always-on exuberance, the constant pop culture references, the "look-at-me" flashiness of the film play against it. There's a sense that Mr. Dolan lets himself be carried away by the stylistic choices and technical flourishes just for the hell of it; a good example is the film's highly constrained aspect ratio, a 1:1 square almost like a cellphone lens, that widens to standard 1:85 framing and back depending on whether the narrative developments open up or close down possible pathways.
It's a perfectly defensible option, but one that becomes somewhat tiresome and overexploited during the film's sprawling length (reiterating to excess points better made before).
Coming after the somewhat calculated (and not entirely successful) attempt at a more restrained work that was 2013's Tom at the Farm, Mommy suggests a "two-steps-forward one-step-back" return to Mr. Dolan's comfort zone, but with less artistic ambition than in what remains, to me, his most accomplished film, 2012's Laurence Anyways.
For the actors alone, though, and for what the director manages to pull from them with enormous generosity, making sure that for all the histrionics there's a relatable, identifiable person dealing truthfully with the unpredictable mood-swings of the delusional Steve, Mommy is definitely worth seeing.
Cast Anne Dorval, Suzanne Clément, Antoine Olivier Pilon, Patrick Huard, Alexandre Goyette
Director, screenwriter, costume designer and editor Xavier Dolan; cinematographer André Turpin (colour); composer Noia; art director Colombe Raby; producers Nancy Grant and Mr. Dolan; production companies Metafilms and Sons of Manual
Screened December 10th 2014, Ideal, Lisbon (distributor advance screening)