Xavier Dolan is 25 years old, the writer and director of five critically acclaimed movies, and the co-recipient of a jury prize at Cannes, where the vote was split between his fifth film and Jean-Luc Godard's 39th. Knowing this, and having seen none of Dolan's previous work, I approached his Godard-tying entry thinking that it would probably make me want to find him and slap his pretentious face. I mean, come on.
But in fact the film, called Mommy, is a blast of pure cinema, an intense, intimate drama about a harried mother and her troubled teenage son that vividly captures a range of exhilarating emotions from elation to despair. Dolan plays with well-chosen music, strategic silence, even the dimensions of the screen itself to put us in the minds of his characters. As he does, he demonstrates a more experienced filmmaker's technical proficiency, coupled with the bold exuberance of youth. Suddenly his other films are added to my Netflix queue.
The title character in Mommy is Diane (Anne Dorval), called Die, a brash 40-something widow in Montreal whose ADHD-riddled son, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), has just been kicked out of a juvenile detention center for setting a fire. Die's options are limited, and though taking care of Steve herself is exhausting and patience-trying, it's preferable to having him committed to a more severe facility for dangerous offenders. No mother wants that.
It's important to note that Die and Steve actually get along quite well. Both are rowdy, coarse, ungrammatical, and fond of colorful profanity. They interact like quarrelsome but affectionate siblings more than mother and son (which may be part of the problem), and they share fond memories of Steve's father, who died three years ago.
The two befriend a timid neighbor, Kyla (Suzanne Clement), a teacher "on sabbatical" who speaks with a stammer (no, Die and Steve are not polite enough not to make fun of it). At one key moment, perhaps more accustomed to dealing with "problem" kids than Die is, Kyla stands up to Steve in one of his violent moods, pinning him to the floor and putting her face right up to his. Steve wets his pants. At heart, he's nothing more than a scared little boy.
Now there is hope. Kyla begins to tutor Steve; Die, a writer and translator, gets some work; the three become inseparable pals. This leads to an astonishing moment in the film, a perfect juncture of format and story. Up to now, the movie has been presented in a narrow aspect ratio, even narrower than old-style TV pictures. Every shot feels like a close-up, underscoring the sense that Die and Steve are imprisoned by their difficult circumstances.
But now, as Steve, Die, and Kyla run down the street euphorically, Oasis' "Wonderwall" blaring on the soundtrack, Steve stretches his arms out in front of him—and when he does, the frame of the movie stretches out, too, from claustrophobic tightness to a traditional widescreen format. Describing it makes it sound like a cheesy metaphor (his horizons are expanding!), but in practice it's dazzling, a combination of cinematic tools being used to produce a particular feeling. Later, when bad news causes the walls to close in again, the effect is more devastating than it would have been had we not experienced that freedom.
As Steve, Antoine-Olivier Pilon seems to share Dolan's ability to think like a much older person. Just 15 when the film was shot, Pilon appears to grasp the complicated nature of Steve and Die's relationship, and he plays all of Steve's wildly varying emotions with natural charisma. He is never hysterical, even when things are at a fever pitch. The same goes for Anne Dorval, a regular in Dolan's films whose performance here is full of sorrow, anger, joy, frustration, and worry. Die isn't always a great mother, but she is never less than fiercely devoted to her son's well-being, and Dorval walks us through the hectic experience with heartbreaking, cathartic sincerity. Now if you'll excuse me, Netflix awaits.
Eric D. Snider is a contributing film critic and comedy writer. He tweets here.